As trial begins, Milosevic unfazed

The prosecution is presenting a daunting list of war crimes. The defendant will argue that it's all politics.

His chin jutting defiantly, former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic was the picture of insouciance yesterday morning, as he sat in the dock on the first day of the most important war-crimes trial since Nuremberg.

He listened impassively, as chief prosecutor Carla del Ponte introduced charges of genocide, crimes against humanity, and a raft of other violations of the rules of war that she described as "almost medieval" in their "savagery and calculated cruelty."

Mr. Milosevic does not recognize the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, branding it a political court dispensing victors' justice. That stance, and his refusal to appoint defense lawyers, presages enormous difficulties for the panel of three judges ruling in a lengthy trial that is seen as a cornerstone of an emerging system of international justice.

They will have to deal with an accused who shows no signs of wanting to defend himself against the specific charges that the indictment levels, that he "planned, insti- gated, ordered, committed or otherwise aided and abetted" a string of atrocities against Bosnian, Croatian, and ethnic Albanian Kosovar civilians during the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

Instead, Milosevic apparently plans to use the tribunal hearings, expected to last more than a year, as a platform. Going over the judges' heads, he hopes to justify his political role during the conflicts in the court of public opinion.

"This court is illegal, Mr. Milosevic says, but he will be addressing the international public to defend his nation and his policies" says Zdenko Tomanovic, one of the former leader's lawyers. "He wants to argue that the court is reversing the roles of the guilty and the victims."

"Milosevic is history," adds Nenad Stepanovic, a Serbian journalist who has covered the tribunal's hearings. "The Hague is the last stage on which he can appear with all the lights on him."

Most dramatically, Milosevic plans to call on the world leaders he dealt with, such as Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright and Tony Blair, says Mr. Tomanovic, in a bid to highlight how Western leaders cosseted him and negotiated with him before dubbing him the "Butcher of Belgrade" and accusing him of war crimes.

That approach holds the prospect of a twin-level trial, with Milosevic seeking to turn it into a political postmortem of recent Balkan history and ignoring the prosecution's painstaking case, built on eye-witness and other evidence of war crimes spread over nearly 10 years.

That case comprises 65 counts of war crimes outlined in three indictments, including genocide in Bosnia, crimes against humanity in Croatia, and murder and other crimes against humanity in Kosovo, which the prosecution portrays as the outcome of Milosevic's ruthless pursuit of an ethnically pure "Greater Serbia."

The indictments, folded into one case, offer a grim recital of massacres, murders, forced deportations, rapes, torture, and other crimes committed by Serb forces against civilians at a time when Milosevic was allegedly directing them.

Prosecutors will begin with evidence from Kosovo, which offers them the best chance of a conviction, according to legal experts familiar with the case. Not only are victims' memories of the mass exodus in 1999 fresher, but tribunal investigators were able to interview refugees as they streamed across the border into Macedonia, and to enter Kosovo with NATO troops as the Serbian Army withdrew from the territory. It will also be easier to demonstrate that Milosevic, who was president of Yugoslavia and commander of the armed forces in 1999, was at the top of a chain of command stretching down to the soldiers who drove the ethnic Albanians from their homes in Kosovo, trial watchers say.

In the Bosnia and Croatia cases, prosecutors may find it harder to prove convincingly not only that the crimes committed constitute genocide and crimes against humanity, but that Milosevic was directly responsible for those crimes.

In seeking to establish the chain of command, the prosecution is expected to rely on telephone and radio intercepts provided by Western intelligence agencies, and by Bosnian and Croat military sources. But such evidence will not be enough, and observers are speculating feverishly on the identity of 'insider witnesses' that tribunal investigators have persuaded to testify.

Some, whose lives could be endangered by their appearance in court, are expected to be offered anonymity. Others, possibly including former Bosnian Serb President Biljana Plavsic, could be offered lighter charges in their own cases before the tribunal in return for evidence against Milosevic.

How the former Serbian strongman will react to their testimony against him is still unclear. He has the right to cross-examine prosecution witnesses and to call his own, and the court can subpoena anyone to appear before it at his request. But it has no power to compel a witness to do so.

That makes it unlikely that any of the international leaders whom Milosevic might like to question will agree to fulfill his hopes of a direct face-off in the courtroom.

Unclear, too, is the extent to which presiding Judge Richard May will allow Milosevic to say what he wants if he insists on making a political case out of his trial, and where he will draw the line in deciding what is relevant to the defense.

Judge May, an experienced English trial judge, has a reputation for fairness, but in preliminary hearings last year he repeatedly cut off Milosevic's microphone in midstream, ruling that he was not addressing the issues before the court.

Silencing Milosevic in such a fashion while he attempts to defend himself would risk accusations of an unfair trial, says Richard Dicker, head of the International Justice Program at the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

"It will challenge the judges to apply the rules even with an obstructive defendant," he says. "It is absolutely essential that the trial be fair and be seen to be fair," he adds, if it is to help build a nascent system of international justice.

"This trial is a profound vindication for the court, and a demonstration of the role of international courts in bringing justice in situations ... where national courts are unwilling or unable to do the job," he adds. By next May, he predicts, enough countries will have ratified the treaty creating a permanent International Criminal Court to launch the tribunal. "That reflects a sea change in international opinion, tilting away from tolerance for impunity," Mr. Dicker argues. "The credibility that this institution has generated," he says, referring to the Hague tribunal, "has helped bring about that change in attitude."

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