As more and more witnesses refuse to testify in Slobodan Milosevic's defense against war-crimes charges, the trial expected to be a cornerstone of international justice is facing a crisis.
Complaining that the refusal by the UN war-crimes tribunal to let Mr. Milosevic conduct his own defense violates his rights, 265 potential witnesses have said they won't appear, according to the former Yugoslav president's legal aides, raising questions about how fair the trial could be.
This latest clash between Milosevic and his three judges has prompted yet another delay in a trial that has dragged on for 31 months, and is expected to last at least another year.
"The judges are trying to get things moving faster and Milosevic is trying to derail the whole process," says Judith Armatta, a legal expert observing the tribunal for the Coalition for International Justice. "It's a game of chicken. International justice has to find a way of holding such trials in the face of such recalcitrance, otherwise it will be impossible."
Soon after Milosevic began his defense earlier this month, the judges ruled that he was not medically fit to continue without legal counsel, drawing on doctors' reports that the burden of doing so endangered his health and threatened further delays in the trial. Milosevic suffers from high blood pressure and a heart ailment that have caused repeated interruptions in the trial.
Milosevic has fiercely protested against the imposition of counsel, calling it "an obvious effort to dilute and maim my defense." His defense counsel, British barrister Stephen Kay, has lodged an appeal against his assignment, due to be heard within two weeks.
Wednesday, the judges adjourned the case for one month, ordering Mr. Kay to begin identifying, locating, and interviewing potential defense witnesses himself, despite his protests that doing so without any cooperation from Milosevic was "an enormous task ... the scale of which I cannot underestimate."
Milosevic, who denied that his legal team was coordinating the mass refusal of his witnesses to appear, said his aides would provide Kay the list of 1,600 witnesses he had originally hoped to call, along with their contact details. His top legal adviser, Zdenko Tomanovic, how ever, said he would provide no further help to the defense.
Kay also expressed doubts that witnesses would cooperate with him. Of the 23 witnesses scheduled to appear in the coming weeks whom he had contacted, he said, 20 had refused to come unless Milosevic was allowed to represent himself. "Any reasonable observer would not say that this is a fair trial in that context," he argued.
Presiding judge Patrick Robinson took strong exception, pointing out that the court had offered Milosevic the chance to question witnesses himself, and to name his own counsel, both of which he had turned down. "If he refuses to participate, to grasp the opportunities presented to him, none can say there was unfairness," he said.
The showdown over Milosevic's representation comes as the judges take a much tougher line in trying to rein in the former leader, who has seemed to set the pace of proceedings with filibusters, lengthy history lessons, and repeated health problems that doctors said last July were worsened by Milosevic's refusal to take prescribed medication.
Until now, says Richard Dicker, an expert on international justice at Human Rights Watch, the judges had been "bending over backwards to give him more latitude than they needed, to be respectful of his rights."
But a three-month delay over the summer appears to have changed the judges' approach.
"The prestige, reputation, and integrity of the chamber" were at stake, Mr. Robinson said Wednesday. Further delays "would bring the tribunal into disrepute," he added.
The tribunal's reputation faces a different challenge, however, as critics charge that the imposition of counsel on Milosevic is a betrayal of justice.
"It is a political court rather than a juridical body operating in the interests of truth and justice. It would seem that the tribunal has from the beginning already determined [Milosevic's] guilt," wrote former Canadian ambassador to Yugoslavia James Bisset in a letter explaining his refusal to appear as a witness.
Much is at stake: Milosevic is facing life imprisonment on 66 counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide, stemming from the wars that wracked the Balkans during the 1990's and killed 200,000 people. He is the first modern head of state to answer such charges.
The witness crisis is testing the lengths to which the tribunal will go to ensure that Milosevic's side of the story is told in court. Should important witnesses continue to refuse to come to The Hague, Robinson warned Wednesday "some subpoenas will have to be issued."
National governments would be responsible for serving and enforcing with police such subpoenas on their citizens.
It is unclear whether matters would actually come to such an embarrassing pass. "The enforceability of international justice has always been a weak link in the chain," says Mr. Dicker, and issuing subpoenas "would highlight the Achilles heel of this fledgling system."
Says Ms. Armatta, "We are facing a critical turning point in international justice, trying to hold heads of state responsible."