How Milosevic death sets back justice

The Serb leader died in jail Saturday, just two months before his trial was due to end.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Even in the manner of his death, Slobodan Milosevic thumbed his nose at the rest of the world.

By dying in a prison cell before the end of his warcrimes trial in The Hague, the former Yugoslav president has denied his victims justice, raised his stature among Serbs as a martyr, and probably dashed the European Union's hope of soon coaxing Serbia out of its pariah status.

At the same time he has set back the cause of international justice, whose proponents had been relishing the prospect of a former head of state being punished for crimes against humanity for the first time .

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The abrupt and premature end to Mr. Milosevic's legal battle, however, leaves the principles behind his trial intact, say judicial experts. "He was not brought to judgment, but he was brought to justice," says Edgar Chen, who was observing Milosevic's trial for the Coalition for International Justice. "He did not die in a hail of bullets in Belgrade or in retirement on the French Riviera. He died in a jail cell."

Milosevic was found dead Saturday in his cell at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, where his four-year trial on 66 counts - including genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes - had been expected to end within two months.

The trial was often delayed by Milosevic's complaints of poor health. Diagnosed by court-appointed doctors as suffering from heart disease and high blood pressure, Milosevic had asked to go to Russia for treatment. Judges recently turned down the request, ruling that he had good enough medical care in The Hague. Dutch pathologists conducted an autopsy Sunday with Serbian pathologists observing.

"I deeply regret" Milosevic's death, Chief Prosecutor Carla del Ponte said Sunday, lamenting that "it deprives the victims of the justice they need and deserve." His death "makes it even more urgent" for fugi-tives from the war trials court, such as Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadjic, to be handed over, Ms. del Ponte added.

The European Union recently added to the international pressure on Serbia to hand over Mr. Mladic and Mr. Karadjic, indicted for their alleged roles in the massacre of 8,000 Bosnian men and boys at Srebrenica, by threatening to cut off talks on closer ties with Serbia unless the two men surrender to the court by April 5.

Milosevic's death, however, makes such a handover even less likely, say political analysts in Belgrade.

The Hague tribunal is highly unpopular in Serbia, where it is widely regarded as an anti-Serb kangaroo court, though it has also indicted some Croatian and Bosnian suspects.

Milosevic's death, together with last week's suicide of Milan Babic, a Croatian Serb in the same detention center who had already been sentenced for war crimes, "simply strengthen Serbs' feelings that they are victims of an unjust criminal trial procedure" says James Lyon, an adviser in Belgrade to the International Crisis Group.

Serbian politicians, including government leaders, know that "by attacking the tribunal they can only gain" popularity, says Srdjan Bogosavljevic, who runs Serbia's biggest opinion polling firm. "Future cooperation with The Hague is really going to be a problem."

Milosevic's death also rules out any hope that a verdict in his case would encourage ordinary Serbs to face up to what ethnic Serb militias did during the Balkan wars in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo. "The Serbs are still in a culture of denial" about the crimes their forces committed, says Mr. Chen, and the lack of a clear conclusion to the Milosevic trial "has dealt a devastating blow" to those hoping to change the culture.

More than 50 percent of Serbs cannot name a single Serb war crime, Mr. Bogosavljevic's polls have found: Either they do not remember the massacres, or they do not consider them crimes.

"The only thing that would help" to change that outlook "is a good and effective process in The Hague," says Bogosavljevic. "That hasn't happened. After four years on the TV every day, people think the trial is an endless process that can't prove anything. The feeling is that if they [the prosecution] had anything, it would be over by now."

Dr. Lyon adds that "what should have been the most important case resulting from the breakup of the former Yugoslavia has now ended in a stalemate that favors Milosevic's propaganda."

It's likely the case would have had more impact in Serbia had it not dragged on so long, which is one of "the lessons that need to be drawn about conducting these kinds of trials," says Richard Dicker, head of the international justice program at Human Rights Watch.

"The prosecution has to focus on the most important representative crimes," he argues, and judges "have to balance respect for the right of an accused to defend himself with the interests of justice in conducting an efficient proceeding." Milosevic's insistence on defending himself - refusing legal counsel - held up the trial on a number of occasions for weeks at a time when he was unwell.

Ms. del Ponte said Sunday she folded all 66 counts against Milosevic into one indictment because "it is not only a question of conviction ... it is a question of truth. It is important for the victims that they have full knowledge of what happened."

Forthcoming trials of Milosevic's lieutenants, she added, would provide "the opportunity for the prosecution to fully explain what happened."

Milosevic's hand in history

Former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic was found dead Saturday in his cell in The Hague, where he was on trial for war crimes.

1989 Milosevic becomes president of Serbia; strips Kosovo of autonomy

1991 Milosevic urges Serbs in Croatia to take up arms

1992 UN cease-fire in Croatia; Bosnia-Herzegovina declares independence

1995 Bosnian war ends; NATO authorizes troop deployment

1996 Opposition wins run offs in most local elections; elections annulled

1997 Milosevic named Yugoslav president

1998 Milosevic sends troops to crush Albanians in Kosovo

1999 NATO airstrikes begin; Milosevic indicted for war crimes; Yugoslavia agrees to UN control of Kosovo

2000 Yugoslavs vote directly for president for first time; Milosevic ousted

2001 Milosevic flown to The Hague to face war-crimes charges

2002 Trial begins

2005 Trial adjourns due to Milosevic's health

2006 January - Trial reopens

Feb. 24 - Tribunal rejects his request for medical treatment in Russia

March 11 - Milosevic found dead

Source: Associated Press

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