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Milosevic 'Exonerated'? War-Crime Deniers Feed Receptive Audience

  • Gordana Knezevic

Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's death in custody means that his trial will never resume, and the facts of the case against him will never be established in a court of law -- and so Clark and his ilk can continue to imagine an alternate reality.

Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's death in custody means that his trial will never resume, and the facts of the case against him will never be established in a court of law -- and so Clark and his ilk can continue to imagine an alternate reality.

Strange mid-summer news: A U.K.-based pundit, in an op-ed piece in RT, sensationally claims that the late Slobodan Milosevic has been "exonerated" by the UN court that deals with war crimes that took place during the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

Milosevic, the former president of Yugoslavia who died in his cell in The Hague a decade ago while awaiting trial on a host of war crimes charges, has long been accused of masterminding those wars.

But in discussing the verdict from a separate case issued by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), Neil Clark argues in RT that it had quietly cleared Milosevic of responsibility for war crimes.

"The ICTY's conclusion, that one of the most demonized figures of the modern era was innocent of the most heinous crimes he was accused of, really should have made headlines across the world," Clark writes. "But it hasn't. Even the ICTY buried it, deep in its 2,590-page verdict in the trial of Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, who was convicted in March of genocide [at Srebrenica], war crimes and crimes against humanity."

Clark asks why there was no official announcement or press conference regarding Milosevic's "exoneration." He goes on to thank journalist and researcher Andy Wilcoxon, who wrote early this month about the March 24 Karadzic judgment, for this supposedly game-changing discovery regarding international justice.

So, has the man who oversaw the worst atrocities committed in Europe since World War II been declared innocent? Clark has been making a name for himself as a leading apologist for Milosevic, for Serbian war crimes, and more recently for Putin's actions in Ukraine. But this time he has really gone too far.

This is a perfect example of fact-bending journalism. I sent an e-mail to the ICTY to get their reaction to the Wilcoxon and Clark reports on Milosevic's supposed exoneration.

The ICTY replied:

"The Trial Chamber of the Karadzic case found, at paragraph 3460, page 1303, of the Trial Judgement, that 'there was no sufficient evidence presented in this case to find that Slobodan Milosevic agreed with the common plan' [to create territories ethnically cleansed of non-Serbs]. The Trial Chamber found earlier in the same paragraph that 'Milosevic provided assistance in the form of personnel, provisions and arms to Bosnian Serbs during the conflict'."

The Trial Chamber did not in fact make any determination of guilt with respect to Milosevic in its verdict against Karadzic. Indeed, Milosevic was not charged or accused in the Karadzic case. The fact that a person is, or is not, found to be part of a joint criminal enterprise in a case in which he is not charged has no impact on the status of his own case or his own criminal responsibility.

In short, the trial against Karadzic was against him and him only, and therefore has no impact on the separate case against Slobodan Milosevic. Karadzic, meanwhile, was found guilty of crimes against humanity and genocide, in case Clark has any reservations about Karadzic's role in the Balkan wars. The full judgement against Karadzic is publicly available here.

If one rather bland, months-old, morsel of legalistic caveat is the prize catch for Clark after trawling through several thousand pages of transcripts of the Karadzic trial, then it is a rather poor one. One is left with the impression that apologists for dictators and deniers of mass crimes continue to excel in the mendacious art of clutching at straws -- in this case, a single straw.

Milosevic's Army, Media

Milosevic's death in custody means that his trial will never resume, and the facts of the case against him will never be established in a court of law -- and so Clark and his ilk can continue to imagine an alternate reality. While that is unfortunate, I can only confront Clark (and Wilcoxon) with my own experience.

I remember the morning in early April 1992 when the tanks of the Yugoslav Army besieged Sarajevo. (At the time, Branko Kostic was acting president of Yugoslavia, but Milosevic -- as president of Serbia -- held most of the real power.) I lived in the Kosevsko brdo neighborhood, and because of shelling I was unable to make it to the newspaper where I worked. I could see the smoke rising from buildings downtown. From my balcony, I could also see the heavy artillery in the hills above my neighborhood.

My phone was still working, as the main post office and telephone exchange was not burned down until May 2. To my surprise I received a call from the Belgrade radio station Politika. A journalist wanted me to describe what was going on in Sarajevo. For a moment I was happy that someone from Belgrade wanted to know about the suffering of civilians. Many people in Belgrade had friends and relatives in Sarajevo. I was naively hoping that if people in Belgrade found out what was going on, that the army was waging war on civilians in Bosnia, they would be moved to protest its actions.

Concerned that the line could be cut at any moment, I described everything I knew about the Yugoslav Army's attack on the city, without pausing to catch my breath. The Belgrade journalist on the other end told me that we would go live in a few minutes. He then asked me if I could repeat what I had just told him, but without mentioning the Yugoslav Army. "Could you just report on the damage you see, since we do not know who is shooting?" he requested. In despair I explained to my colleague in Belgrade that I did know who was shooting -- that was the point. I told him that from my window I could even make out the red-star insignia of the Yugoslav Army painted on tanks whose barrels were smoking.

He then asked me: "Are you a Serb?" I said yes, but I still have eyes and ears. He apologized, and explained that they could not put me on air after all. They just needed a report on the damage done to the city. They were not allowed to mention the Yugoslav Army. Being under fire and besieged in my city was bad enough, but not being able to report on what I could see around me made it even worse. I felt helpless, humiliated.

Shells hit houses in the suburbs of Sarajevo in August 1992.

Shells hit houses in the suburbs of Sarajevo in August 1992.

The media in Belgrade were controlled by Milosevic, and the army was under his control. This was just the beginning of the siege of Sarajevo that would last more than 1,000 days, from April 6, 1992, to February 29, 1996. Nearly 14,000 people (civilians) were killed, including almost 2,000 children.

'Creeping Rehabilitation'

The fact that the trial against Milosevic was never brought to a conclusion does not change his role in the history of Serbia and of the Balkans. Serbia still refuses to deal with that past -- not only with its actions in neighboring states, but crimes committed in Serbia itself. Several assassinations of prominent politicians during Milosevic's rule are still unsolved. The most prominent is that of Ivan Stambolic, who was preparing to oppose Milosevic in the Serbian presidential election in 2000 when he was killed by security forces while jogging.

There is also the slaying of Serbian journalist Slavko Curuvija. Or the attempted assassination of former Foreign Minister and opposition party leader Vuk Draskovic. The list of Milosevic's victims, or would-be victims, is much longer, of course. The witnesses are disappearing, while people who were part the Milosevic regime are back in power, or inching closer. The leader of the Serbian Socialist Party, Ivica Dacic, was parading Milosevic's grandchild around during his election campaign in April.

A woman touches the bust at the grave of late Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in the town of Pozarevac, Serbia.

A woman touches the bust at the grave of late Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in the town of Pozarevac, Serbia.

This creeping rehabilitation of Milosevic and his regime in Serbia is being abetted by outside forces with their own agendas, whether anti-NATO, pro-Russian, or reckless indulgence of conspiracy theories -- like the Texas-based Ron Paul Institute, which helped carry the invented news on Milosevic's "exoneration."

This article in the Daily Beast helped me understand the background and motives of Milosevic's apologists abroad

According to Serbian historian Latinka Perovic, Serbia's failure to rebuild relations with its neighbors is due to the failure of Serbian society to understand -- and deal with -- the causes of the breakup of Yugoslavia, and Serbia's role in the wars. The mentality of the 1990s endures, she explained in an interview with RFE/RL.

There are many reasons why Serbia has yet to shed the dangerous delusions that led to the catastrophic wars of the 1990s, including the sense of victimhood that is behind the continued denial of war crimes committed in its name. But the process of truth and reconciliation in the region is not helped by unscrupulous war crime deniers like Clark. He seems to enjoy the notoriety of being contrarian, even if it means proclaiming the innocence of war criminals and mass murderers.

NOTE: This article has been revised to identify Branko Kostic as acting president of Yugoslavia in 1992, and to correct Milosevic's status at that time.

About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.

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