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Yugoslavia: Milosevic Attempts To Discredit Proceedings At War Crimes Trial

At the conclusion of the second day of Slobodan Milosevic's war crimes trial in The Hague, the former Yugoslav president attempted to discredit the proceedings, arguing that the trial has no legal grounds, that his transfer to The Hague contradicted Serbian and Yugoslav law, and that the prosecution has already pronounced him guilty in the media. Milosevic's brief monologue came after prosecutors finished presenting their opening statements, in which they charged that Milosevic had command responsibility for war crimes in the Balkans.

Prague, 13 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Slobodan Milosevic said today the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia "does not have the competence" to try him.

After sitting impassively through two days of prosecution arguments at his trial before the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Milosevic was asked by presiding Judge Richard May whether he wished to respond to the charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.

But with less than 30 minutes remaining before a scheduled adjournment, Milosevic declined to begin his formal statement. Instead, as he has done in previous court appearances, he combatively challenged the legitimacy of the court. He accused the court of failing to investigate whether his arrest and transfer to The Hague violated the Serbian and Yugoslav constitutions. He also said the prosecution has already tried and sentenced him in the media.

"Your prosecution has orchestrated a media campaign that is being waged as a parallel trial through the media, which, along with this unlawful tribunal, is there to play a role of a parallel lynch process."

But Judge May cut Milosevic off, saying the tribunal has already ruled on such matters: "You (Milosevic) had the right of appeal (on the tribunal's decisions). You did not take it. The matters, therefore, have all been dealt with, and your views about the tribunal are now completely irrelevant as far as these proceedings are concerned."

May then adjourned the trial until tomorrow, when Milosevic is expected to offer his formal response to the charges contained in the three indictments against him for atrocities allegedly committed during the wars in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo.

Prosecutors today completed their outline of the 66 separate charges against Milosevic for 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.

After presenting the charges yesterday for crimes committed in Croatia, lead prosecutor Geoffrey Nice today turned to the indictment for Bosnia.

The courtroom saw videotaped footage of emaciated young men penned in by barbed wire at the Trenopolje detention camp. Nice recounted the reported massacre of at least 6,500 Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica, showing pictures of hooded bodies lying in mass graves. He described the 3 1/2-year siege of Sarajevo.

"The siege of Sarajevo -- that's what it was popularly known as -- was an episode of such notoriety in the former Yugoslavia that we must go back to World War II to find a parallel in European history. Not since then has a professional army conducted a campaign of unrelenting violence against the civilians of a European city so to reduce them to a state of medieval deprivation in which they were in constant fear of death."

Nice argued that Milosevic orchestrated a campaign of ethnic cleansing, giving tacit "support" to the Bosnian Serb leadership and army.

"We accept that our proof against this accused, at this stage, for complicity in these awful events (during the siege of Sarajevo), is via his support for the Republika Srpska and via support for its army. We do not, of course, exclude the possibility of being able to go further in due course."

Prosecution attorney Dirk Ryneveld took over for Nice, detailing the indictment against Milosevic for crimes against humanity in Kosovo. Ryneveld argued that attacks by Serbian forces compelled hundreds of thousands of Kosovo Albanians to flee the province.

"If there is any doubt about the fact that these refugees were being deported from Kosovo, consider the fact that the Serb authorities planned ahead to lay on transportation to transfer them out. Well, that kind of activity takes planning, coordination and, in most cases, permission from higher authorities."

In Pristina today, Kosovo Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova told reporters that he will testify against Milosevic. Rugova said the trial could potentially be a "satisfaction" for Kosovars and "serve as a lesson for other leaders that they cannot be above the law."

Rugova is one of many Balkan leaders expected to take the stand against Milosevic. Other evidence is based on intelligence reports, forensic data, and testimony from victims and Western diplomats.

Vladimir Krsljanin, an accredited observer representing Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia, spoke to Branka Trivic of RFE/RL's South Slavic Service today about the trial so far.

Krsljanin discounted the evidence shown during the past two days, saying the prosecution will not be able to prove Milosevic had a unified plan to create a Greater Serbia or that he should be held responsible for "individual crimes" committed during the three wars.

"We all know that there were atrocities in civil wars in Croatia and Bosnia. There were crimes on all sides. We know also that there were individual crimes committed in Kosovo by Yugoslav army and police. But there were several hundred members prosecuted by Yugoslav courts for that. So there wasn't anything like a criminal plan from [the] Serbian and Yugoslav side from President Milosevic."

Milosevic, the first serving head of state ever indicted for war crimes, is expected to portray himself as the defender of Serbs and a victim of NATO aggression. He has no appointed defense counsel. Judges have entered not guilty pleas on his behalf and appointed three lawyers as amici curiae, or "friends of the court," to ensure he has a fair trial. They can cross-examine witnesses and make legal arguments based on Milosevic's comments.

Milosevic also has a range of legal advisers who do not sit with him in court but who have been extremely vocal in disputing the prosecution's arguments and claiming Milosevic's innocence. These advisers say Milosevic will call a range of Western leaders to the stand, including former U.S. President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair.