Milosevic acts in his own defense as trial stretches on
April 6, 2003
HAGUE, Netherlands — Dressed in a suit and tie and generally looking none the worse for wear after years of war, Slobodan Milosevic sat in a courtroom and listened to a troubled young man from Montenegro.
The former conscript, his voice and face electronically altered to protect his identity, recounted his service in the Yugoslav army from September 1998 to June 1999. Much of his testimony centered on “field operations” in southern Kosovo in late winter, around the time NATO aircraft crews were preparing for combat.
Now in his early 20s, the man testified over a video hookup from an undisclosed location.
Such are the precautions when an international tribunal tries a former head of state, one who still possesses loyal followers, deep pockets and a pulpit to preach from.
“Did you shoot at all of the civilians in front of you?” a prosecutor asked the former conscript, referring to an incident in late March in the village of Trnje, north of Prizren. “When I say ‘you,’ I mean collectively; the group.”
“Yes,” answered the man behind the altered voice. “Our group shot at the people who were there. …”
The massacre occurred the morning after NATO launched an air armada against Yugoslav forces to help bring an end to ethnic atrocities in Kosovo. The civilians, including women and at least one infant, had been herded at gunpoint from their homes into a grassy courtyard and ordered to sit.
“What, if anything, do you recall happening to the people at whom you and your fellow soldiers shot?”
“The people who were shot at began falling down one across the other, one over the other, and what I remember most vividly is how — I remember this very vividly — there was a baby, and it had been shot with three bullets, and it was screaming unbelievably loud.”
And every night since, the former soldier said, he hears that baby wailing as he struggles to fall asleep or to escape another nightmare.
Milosevic is enduring a nightmare of his own, one many observers say was of his own making.
The Milosevic trial, which began more than a year ago, is held in a second-floor Dutch courtroom in front of a panel of three judges from the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Under the auspices of the United Nations, the court’s 66-count indictment encompasses war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
Against the repeated advice of the court, the 61-year-old Milosevic has assumed the role of lead defense attorney, meaning he’s questioning — and some would say intimidating — prosecution witnesses.
“And is it perhaps correct that not a single one of [your superiors] ordered you to kill civilians?” Milosevic postulated in challenging the conscript.
“Since you committed this grave crime,” Milosevic asked later, “were you given any promises for this testimony of yours?”
“He doesn’t care about this court,” said reporter Emir Suljagic, who is covering the Milosevic trial for Dani, a weekly Bosnian newspaper. “He’s playing to the people of Serbia.”
While interest in the trial has waned since it began Feb. 12, 2002, it still remains a topic of conversation among Serbs, said Slavoljub Caric, consul for the Serbia-Montenegro Embassy in The Hague.
At a pretrial hearing in January 2002, the former Yugoslav leader asked the court “how those who defended their families, who defended their children and their thresholds and homes and home country are criminals, are evil people, whereas those who traveled thousands and thousands” of miles to bomb “houses in the course of the night and to kill innocent people and to destroy maternity wards, hospitals, bridges, railways,” in support of Albanian terrorists, “are the good guys.”
Milosevic, who was ousted from office in 2000, has raised the prospect of calling former President Clinton to the stand, as well as Clinton’s secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, and former British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook.
If it does come to pass, it won’t happen anytime soon for the defense.
Court observers expect the Milosevic trial to continue well into next year, since the accused has indicated he wants equal time to defend himself. Caric believes the case might extend into 2005, given that appeals are likely.
So far, Caric said, the trial “is going not so good for Milosevic.”
The prosecution’s case is divided into three parts along geographical lines. The first phase, involving alleged crimes in Kosovo, concluded the second week of September. Currently, the court is weighing evidence against Milosevic pertaining to Croatia, but will soon turn its attention to Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Bosnia could well be the thorniest of the lot. That’s because the 29-count indictment covering Bosnia includes a count each of genocide and complicity (to commit genocide), the most serious war crimes brought against Milosevic, a former bank executive who took power in May 1989.
From March 1992 to December 1995, tens of thousands of Bosnians died in the civil war. Estimates on the number of war dead vary, with some figures running as high as 200,000. (Roughly half of Bosnia’s 4 million people were displaced because of the conflict.)
But the international tribunal has drawn a distinction between battle casualties and those victims, especially civilian noncombatants, injured or killed because of their ethnicity.
“The events themselves were notorious, and a new term, ‘ethnic cleansing,’ came into common use in our language,” Carla Del Ponte, the tribunal’s chief prosecutor, said on the opening day of the trial. “Some of the incidents reveal an almost medieval savagery and the calculated cruelty that went far beyond the bounds of legitimate warfare.”
The tribunal charges that a state-sponsored campaign orchestrated by Milosevic and his followers led military and paramilitary units to commit genocide. In the Srebrenica region alone, investigators have unearthed the remains of several thousand people, though officials suspect many more Bosnian Muslim boys and men were murdered after a United Nations “safe haven” fell to the Bosnian Serb army in July 1995.
In a report released this month, Amnesty International estimated that 27,000 people from all sides of the conflict — but “predominantly” Bosnian Muslims — remained unaccounted for.
“Amnesty International believes that large numbers of these people were victims of targeted ‘disappearances’ committed mainly by members of the police and armies or paramilitary armed formations,” the report stated.
One woman who spent time in a detention camp and now counsels fellow survivors recently testified in court. Some people, she said, spoke of horrific conditions, torture, death and efforts by the Serbs to bury or burn bodies.
In a written statement to the tribunal, Milka Malesevic said the barbarism ranged from roasting people on a spit and inciting animals to kill detainees, to cannibalism and forcing prisoners to tear off one anothers’ genitals.
One recent afternoon, Suljagic, the Bosnian journalist, discussed the trial during a break in the proceedings. He often cast a glance at Milosevic, seated in the dock and shielded by a bulletproof pane.
“I sort of miss him when he’s not here, hate him when he is,” Suljagic said.
Over the past year, prosecutors have lost 30 days due to Milosevic being sick. The prosecution was scheduled to rest its case in mid-May, but court observers expect the deadline to be extended to make up for the lost time.
Additional time could get tacked on because prosecutors have had a hard time securing some documents from Belgrade, the Serbian capital, said Judith Armatta, an American lawyer monitoring the trial for the Coalition for International Justice, a nonprofit organization.
Other capitals in the former Yugoslavia have permitted greater access.
The prosecution “should be getting to the end of its case,” Armatta said, “but when you look at the numbers [of witnesses remaining], it doesn’t look like they will.”
Armatta, who has sat through the entire trial, said prosecutors hope some of the big-name witnesses who have yet to raise their hands will reveal information that might negate the need for others to give testimony.
One witness who has done that is Milan Babic, former president of the Serbian entity created on Croatian territory in the early 1990s. The Serb Republic of Krajina no longer exists.
Babic, who also served as mayor of Krajina’s capital city of Knin, “saved quite a bit of time,” Armatta said. Prosecutors “saved 14 witnesses by having him there.”
From October 1990 to September 1991, Babic testified he met with Milosevic in Belgrade “some 25 times.” The two were close allies before becoming bitter enemies.
Toward the end of his lengthy testimony last month, Babic, who was being cross-examined, admonished Milosevic for dodging responsibility for the fighting and bloodshed in Croatia.
“Mr. Milosevic, in 1991, you waged a horrific war,” Babic said in response to a question from Milosevic. “You dragged the Serbian people into that war. You did not protect the Serbian people. You brought shame upon the Serbian people. You brought misfortune on the Croatian people, the Muslim people. …”
Milosevic has scored some points, but he also has tested the patience of the court, especially when he launches into political diatribes.
While Milosevic tries to save his skin, other players, like the soldier who testified about the civilian massacre, simply want to cleanse their souls.
“Mr. Milosevic, I am here of my own free will, and I said that before,” the soldier said in response to a question about a prosecutor deal.
“Mr. Milosevic, when I tell this truth to the person who, in my opinion, is the most responsible for all these crimes, that already makes me feel better. I need no further promises. That is sufficient for me.”
— Kevin Dougherty is a reporter in Darmstadt, Germany.
Carla del Ponte's opening remarks
In 1999, the U.N. Security Council named Carla del Ponte its chief prosecutor for two International Criminal Tribunals — one for former Yugoslavia and the other for Rwanda.
The Swiss-born lawyer spoke on the first day of the Slobodan Milosevic trial at The Hague, Netherlands. What follows are detailed excerpts of her opening remarks on Feb. 12, 2002:
Your Honors, the Chamber will now begin the trial of this man for the wrongs he is said to have done to the people of his own country and to his neighbors. How simple that statement is to make today; how easily those words pass into the record of these proceedings; and yet how remarkable it is that I am able to speak them here. Today, as never before, we see international justice in action. Let us take a moment at the start of this trial to reflect upon the establishment of this Tribunal and its purpose.
We should just pause to recall the daily scenes of grief and suffering that came to define armed conflict in the former Yugoslavia. The events themselves were notorious and a new term, “ethnic cleansing,” came into common use in our language. Some of the incidents reveal an almost medieval savagery and the calculated cruelty that went far beyond the bounds of legitimate warfare. The international community was shocked to witness the vicious disintegration of a modern state, and the Security Council of the United Nations was quick to recognize the grave threat caused by the serious crimes it believed to have been committed.
This Tribunal is one of the measures taken by the Security Council acting for all Member States of the United Nations to restore and maintain international peace and security. That is our purpose, and our unique contribution is to bring to justice the persons responsible for the worst crimes known to humankind. The crime of genocide, crimes against humanity, and the other crimes within the jurisdiction of this Tribunal are not local affairs, and their prosecution may be beyond the capability of national courts. Crimes of the magnitude of those in the indictment before the Chamber affect all of us throughout the world. The law of this Tribunal — international humanitarian law — is the concern of people everywhere. These crimes touch every one of us, wherever we live, because they offend against our deepest principles of human rights and human dignity.
The law is not a mere theory or an abstract concept. It is a living instrument that must protect our values and regulate civilized society. And for that we must be able to enforce the law when it is broken. This Tribunal, and this trial in particular, give the most powerful demonstration that no one is above the law or beyond the reach of international justice.
As Prosecutor, I bring the accused Milosevic before you to face the charges against him. I do so on behalf of the international community and in the name of all the member states of the United Nations, including the states of the former Yugoslavia. The accused in this case, as in all cases before the Tribunal, is charged as an individual. He is prosecuted on the basis of his individual criminal responsibility. No state or organization is on trial here today. …
Your Honors, while I bring the indictment as Prosecutor in the international public interest, I do not mean to ignore the victims of the crimes committed during the conflicts. Much of the development of the law since the Second World War has been designed to prevent members of the civilian population from coming to harm in times of armed conflict. The law itself exists to protect ordinary people not engaged in hostilities. Even so, as Prosecutor, I do not directly represent any individual victim. I do, however, consider it to be part of my function in presenting the case to allow the voice of the victims to be heard.
No court can experience the events as the victims themselves did, and no court can be expected to do so. Many victims cannot come before you because they did not survive. Nor is it possible, in the proof of crimes on such a scale as those in the indictments, for any prosecutor to bring all of the surviving witnesses to give evidence in court. Despite that limitation, I am confident that the Prosecution case will present to the Chamber a full picture of the circumstances of the crimes and of their impact on the people against whom they were directed. …
This case will certainly test the criminal justice process itself and will challenge the very capacity of a modern criminal court to address crimes which must extend so far in time and place. …
The Chamber will receive testimony from high-ranking military figures, diplomats, government representatives, and other persons of rank and function who, for different reasons that the Chamber will understand, cannot be named today. Such persons do not commonly appear in the criminal courts, and receiving their evidence challenges equally the witnesses and the Court. The witnesses must find in themselves the individual courage to give their accounts in public. …
With the trial of this particular accused, we reach a turning point of this institution. The proceeding upon which the Chamber embarks today is clearly the most important trial to be conducted in the Tribunal to date. Indeed, it may prove to be the most significant trial that this institution will ever undertake. It is thus a trial that must inevitably mark the path toward the conclusion of the work of this Tribunal, even although that day is still some way off. …
Let me say, Mr. President, these few closing remarks: An excellent tactician, a mediocre strategist, Milosevic did nothing but pursue his ambition at the price of unspeakable suffering inflicted on those who opposed him or who represented a threat for his personal strategy of power. Everything, Your Honors, everything with the accused Milosevic was an instrument in the service of his quest for power.
One must not seek ideals underlying the acts of the accused. Beyond the nationalist pretext and the horror of ethnic cleansing, behind the grandiloquent rhetoric and the hackneyed phrases he used, the search for power is what motivated Slobodan Milosevic. These were not his personal convictions, even less patriotism or honor or racism or xenophobia which inspired the accused but, rather, the quest for power, and personal power at that. …