Gas station attendant vs. 'Butcher of the Balkans'

Ex-Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic blisters witnesses as his trial continues.

– Bajram Bucaliu pumps gas for a living in his home town in central Kosovo. He used to be a railway signalman. Never in his wildest dreams could he have expected to be giving lip to the man who used to be his president.

But that is what Mr. Bucaliu found himself doing here on Wednesday, as he testified in the trial of Slobodan Milosevic at the international war crimes tribunal. When Mr. Milosevic pointedly asked him if he knew the saying that "those who don't tell the truth have to remember exactly what they said before," he answered just as sharply.

"No, I don't," said Bucaliu. "But it doesn't apply to me. Maybe it applies to you."

The courtroom exchange, in the fifth week of Milosevic's trial on 66 counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, marked one of the few occasions when a witness has stood up to the defendant's aggressive cross-examination.

Reversing his earlier refusal to take an active part in the court proceedings, the former Yugoslav president is now defending himself with vigor from his seat in the dock. Treating prosecution witnesses with a mixture of disdain and disbelief, Milosevic has engaged in what he calls "a battle I will not miss."

In doing so, and dispensing with lawyers, he is presenting the world with "a very specific situation, a former president interrogating his victims," says Florence Hartmann, spokeswoman for the chief prosecutor, Carla del Ponte.

And Milosevic is conducting the interrogations in a style that trial observers say falls not far short of bullying. In his cross-examinations, Milosevic has caught minor inconsistencies in some testimony.

"His tactic is shake, rattle, and roll the witnesses," says Richard Dicker, director of the international justice program at Human Rights Watch. "He is trying to intimidate them."

Helping him are supporters in Belgrade who appear to be feeding him information about the witnesses, drawn from police files. On Wednesday, for example, Milosevic recalled Bucaliu's role in a railway accident in 1987 that led to his suspension from duty, and asked the witness whether his father had ever been imprisoned for smuggling.

"Just say yes or no," he pressed Bucaliu at another point. "I don't care what your answer is, just give me an answer."

This approach "might be good for Court TV," says Judith Armatta, a US lawyer observing the trial for the Coalition for International Justice, "but Milosevic is a terrible lawyer. He breaks cardinal rules of cross-examination, like asking questions he doesn't know the answer to, and giving blatant misinformation, which means he is contradicted by the witness."

But that does not make him any less intimidating to the humble Kosovo Albanians who have given evidence about the deaths and deportations they say they suffered. One, Aqim Zeqiri, asked to be excused halfway through his cross-examination, saying he could not put up with any more.

"Milosevic can outbully any witness who comes to court," says Mr. Dicker. "He is the Incredible Hulk, but that has precious little to do with the refutation of any of the legal charges he is facing."

So far, says Dicker, the trial has been a confrontation between the prosecution team "putting together a huge jigsaw puzzle piece by piece" and a defendant "who realizes he has quite a platform for himself to rewrite the history of the Balkans, casting NATO as the criminal and himself as the victim. That's a political campaign ... playing to the hometown crowd" in Serbia.

Until this week, presiding judge Richard May had been lenient, granting Milosevic more latitude in his questioning than a defendant would enjoy in a US or British court.

And the panel of three judges "has followed our submissions on a number of occasions" says Steven Kay, one of the three "friends of the court" appointed to protect Milosevic's rights.

In recent days, however, Mr. May has been stricter in limiting the scope of Milosevic's questions, and has betrayed impatience with the defendant.

Though prosecution lawyers have been frustrated by the judges' readiness to allow Milosevic to badger witnesses, and to ask the same question repeatedly, they say they are pleased to see the defendant participating actively in his trial.

"It is good for us that the accused is defending himself, that he is moving," says Ms. Hartmann. "Our goal is to get a conviction, but to do so while being challenged, in a fair trial."

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