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Yugoslavia: Milosevic Says He, Serbs Are Victims Of Propaganda

Slobodan Milosevic formally opened his defense today in his historic war crimes trial in The Hague, calling the charges against him an "outrage" to Serbs everywhere. The former Yugoslav president called the three indictments against him a "manipulation" of events in the Balkans throughout the past decade and said again he was a victim of NATO aggression. Milosevic's defense statement comes on the third day of the trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, where he is being tried for crimes against humanity in Croatia and Kosovo and genocide in Bosnia.

Prague, 14 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- In a dramatic opening defense statement, Milosevic indignantly attacked the case against him, saying he was speaking for the entire Serb nation in refuting a "terrible fabrication of events."

After the prosecution used video in its opening statements during the first two days of the history-making trial on 12-13 February, the former Yugoslav president screened a video of his own -- a documentary made by German ARD television based on interviews with Western officials that took issue with NATO policy on Yugoslavia.

At the conclusion of the hour-long video, Milosevic said it showed that the UN tribunal's case against him is a "product of propaganda."

"This is just an atom, even smaller than an atom, of the truth. Even less than an atom of the truth in the ocean of lies and the products of propaganda and the abuse of global media as a means of war against my country," Milosevic said.

The first head of state to be tried before an international tribunal, Milosevic is facing three indictments carrying a total of 66 charges against him. Each charge carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. Having refused to acknowledged the legitimacy of the tribunal, Milosevic has not appointed defense counsel and is speaking on his own behalf. Judges have entered not guilty pleas for Milosevic and have appointed three amici curiae, or "friends of the court," to help ensure he receives a fair trial.

Milosevic spoke clearly and forcefully for most of the morning and through the early hours of the afternoon. He attacked each of the three indictments against him, beginning with the charges regarding the Kosovo conflict, which he described as a fight against "terrorism" in Yugoslavia.

"The Americans go all the way to the other side of the globe to fight against terrorism in Afghanistan -- on the other side of the world. And that is considered to be logical and normal, whereas here, the struggle against terrorism in the heart of one's own country, in one's own home, is considered to be a crime," Milosevic said.

Milosevic denied accusations that Serb forces were responsible for a coordinated campaign of murder and the mass expulsion of civilians from the province. Instead, Milosevic accused the Kosovo Liberation Army and the NATO bombing campaign of killing women and children and forcing the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Kosovar Albanians.

Milosevic scoffed at the notion that he advocated a Greater Serbia plan, saying he would have needed "magical, God-like powers" to have masterminded the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

"He [the prosecutor] says he is just accusing an individual and that individual is myself and he probably thinks that I am super-human, having super-human powers, influencing people and having responsibility outside the territory of my own country. He has ascribed to me some magical, God-like powers. And he is dealing with my emotional state, what was in my mind and what I wanted to achieve," Milosevic said.

Milosevic indignantly dismissed accusations that he instigated the wars in Bosnia and Croatia, blaming Western "bosses" for the break-up of Yugoslavia. He said that Serbs did not start the wars and that he personally fought to keep Yugoslavia together.

"How can you be so impudent and quote an alleged statement of mine that Yugoslavia is finished, when everybody knows that I advocated wholeheartedly that Yugoslavia should be continued, and as a basis for this continuity we established the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia?" Milosevic said.

The prosecution is attempting to build a case against Milosevic asserting that he had knowledge and authority over actions committed in each of the three wars. The Bosnia indictment is particularly crucial, as the prosecutors hope to prove Milosevic responsible for genocide in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.

The former Serb leader protested this accusation, saying he was a staunch defender of human rights, especially of civilians and those taken as prisoners of war. He denied any knowledge of detention camps where Bosnian Muslim men were starved and tortured during the war.

"When I heard that there were some camps I asked for an explanation -- Is it possible that Serbs were setting up camps? This is the explanation that I received: There were no camps, there were only prisons for prisoners of war, who spent short periods of time there and then they were exchanged on the principle of all for all. Those are the assurances I got several times, and now I see people who worked in camps and who say that we were all deceived in this connection, perhaps even the people in the leadership of Republika Srpska," Milosevic said.

Richard Dicker, a legal expert for Human Rights Watch, says that in claiming he had no knowledge of conditions at the camp and in denying that he supported local Serbs in Bosnia and Croatia, Milosevic is refuting the prosecution's central claim that he is responsible for atrocities that happened during the Balkan wars. Dicker says Milosevic may also be building a defense claim that Serbs were provoked into responding in the Balkan wars.

"If that is the direction he's going, that does not address the killings that we heard about in Vukovar yesterday [during prosecution statements], when 240 people were taken out of the hospital and beaten and then slaughtered. It doesn't address the shelling of Sarajevo. It doesn't address the killings in Srebrenica, Dicker said. "So I'm speculating here, but if Mr. Milosevic is laying the groundwork for a defense of 'We were attacked, we responded,' okay, that's an interesting defense. But it does not address what he was charged for by way of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide."

But Dicker said today it was difficult to discern a unified defense strategy coming from Milosevic. He said that legal arguments were made, but that Milosevic also continued with familiar political tracts that he was a victim of NATO aggression. Dicker says such political arguments are not going to help Milosevic in this trial.

NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson today responded immediately to Milosevic's accusations that the alliance violated international law and killed innocent civilians in its 1999 bombing campaign against Yugoslavia. Robertson called the accusations "lies" and said they would not help the former Yugoslav president in his case.

Reaction to Milosevic's statement also came from Balkan leaders like Croatian President Stipe Mesic, who flatly denounced Milosevic's argument that he wanted to preserve Yugoslavia. Mesic told reporters today that Milosevic was the "prime architect" of the Balkan wars.

"Milosevic has been deceiving the world since he came to power. At the same time, he was deceiving his own people. He deceived the world by claiming he was fighting to keep Serbia together. He also deceived the Serbs [in this way]. However, the only thing he wanted was a Greater Serbia, an ethnically clean Serbia," Mesic said.

Milosevic only named one potential witness for his trial today, saying he would call French President Jacques Chirac to the stand. Milosevic said the French leader acknowledged in a television interview that France had vetoed NATO plans to bomb bridges in Belgrade during the air war.

The trial is set to continue tomorrow morning (9:30 Prague time) with Milosevic continuing his defense statement.