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Yugoslavia: Prosecutors In The Hague Begin War Crimes Trial Against Slobodan Milosevic

Hundreds of international officials, lawyers, human rights activists, and journalists converged on the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague today for the start of Slobodan Milosevic's war crimes trial, which could last two years. The former Serbian and Yugoslav leader is accused of responsibility for a systematic plan to create an ethnically pure Serbian state through the forced expulsion and murder of thousands of non-Serbs in the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Milosevic refuses to recognize the authority of the United Nations court, calling it "illegal." RFE/RL correspondent Alexandra Poolos reports on developments during the trial's first day.

Prague, 12 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Charged with genocide and crimes against humanity, Slobodan Milosevic entered a courtroom in The Hague today at 0930 (local time) to face Europe's biggest war crimes trial since Nuremberg.

Dressed in a blue suit and striped tie, the former Yugoslav leader sat impassively, taking occasional notes as Carla Del Ponte, the lead prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), opened the case in which Milosevic is accused of overseeing the murder and deportations of hundreds of thousands during the Balkan wars of the last decade. Milosevic is charged with crimes against humanity in the Croatian war in 1991-92, genocide in the 1992-95 Bosnian war, and crimes against humanity in the Kosovo conflict of 1998-99.

Milosevic is the first former head of state to stand trial before an international tribunal. The trial is likely to continue for some two years. Milosevic could be sentenced to life in prison if found guilty of any of the 66 specific charges contained in three indictments against him.

Today's events in the courtroom were dominated by the prosecution's opening remarks. Del Ponte said the trial will make history.

"Today, as never before, we see international justice in action. Let us take a moment at the start of this trial to reflect on the establishment of this tribunal and its purpose. We should just pause to recall the daily scenes of grief and suffering that came to define armed conflict in the former Yugoslavia. The events themselves were notorious, and the new term 'ethnic cleansing' came into common use in our language. Some of the incidents revealed an almost medieval savagery and a calculated cruelty that went far beyond the bounds of legitimate [warfare]."

Del Ponte emphasized that Milosevic is being charged as an individual and that the Serb people are not being tried collectively.

"It may be tempting to generalize when dealing with the conductive leaders at the highest level, but that is an error that must be avoided. Collective guilt forms no part of the prosecution's case. It is not the law of this tribunal. And I make it clear that I reject the very notion. I do, of course, intend to explore the degree to which the power and influence of the accused (Milosevic) extended over others. But I stress again that the accused is brought before you to answer for his own actions and for his personal involvement in the crimes alleged against him."

Del Ponte's spokeswoman, Florence Hartman, told reporters in The Hague that the prosecution's remarks will be backed up in the coming weeks by witness testimony and evidence.

"It is the beginning of the trial, and it will go on for weeks and months, with witnesses and evidence. And we are giving the overview of the case today. But every detail, everything we are stating today, will be proven by evidence and testimony."

Testimony will be given by high-ranking military figures, diplomats, government representatives, and victims. The identities of many witnesses will not be disclosed to protect their safety.

The trial's opening phase will focus on the murders of hundreds of Kosovo Albanians, allegedly by Serbian security forces, and the expulsions of hundreds of thousands from their homes in 1998 and 1999.

Deputy prosecutor Geoffrey Nice said the prosecution will show that Milosevic knew of atrocities being committed by Serb troops and did not stop them from happening.

"The accused (Milosevic), as his course is obvious, is charged in respect of these events. The issue is or may be -- Did he know they were happening? Of course he did."

The biggest challenge facing the prosecution will be proving that Milosevic is guilty of genocide for the murder of thousands of Muslims in Bosnia. According to the legal definition, the prosecution must show that Milosevic was motivated by an intent to destroy in whole or in part the Bosnian Muslim population on the basis of ethnicity.

Another key challenge will be to ensure a fair trial.

Milosevic has refused to appoint a lawyer and has ignored court documents presented to him while in detention. The tribunal has appointed three prominent international lawyers to act on his behalf as "amici curiae" -- or friends of the court. They have entered a plea of not guilty on Milosevic's behalf.

Milosevic is likely to give his opening remarks tomorrow. He is expected to portray himself as the defender of Serbs and a victim of NATO aggression. In his last statement to the court in January, Milosevic called the trial an "unprecedented attempt to turn a victim into a culprit."

One of Milosevic's legal advisers, Zdenko Tomanovic, disagreed with Del Ponte's assertion that the Serb people are not being put on trial in The Hague.

"There is no doubt that if the trial covers events that took place over 10 years ago, and if the politics of that period are being called genocidal, and the whole leadership of the country is being put on trial, there is no doubt that the country and its people are being put on trial, not just one individual."

Another legal adviser, Dragoslav Ognjanovic, says Milosevic will focus on the hypocrisy of those who once courted him as a peacemaker and considered him as a stabilizer in the Balkans.

"He (Milosevic) is very strong in his main strategy. It means that he is not going to recognize that court, and he is not going to defend himself by the rules of this tribunal. But he is going to use the court to say everything he knows about the truth, and he is going to call many former and present politicians to invite them [to speak] in front of this tribunal."

The advisers say Milosevic will call 35 witnesses for his defense, including former U.S. President Bill Clinton, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and former NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana.