Milosevic plays victim, opens defense

Ex-Yugoslav leader denies major role in war atrocities

Prosecutors scorned

He shows pictures of airstrike deaths to portray West as bully

February 15, 2002|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

THE HAGUE, Netherlands - Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic launched a vigorous, rambling and often mesmerizing defense against charges of war crimes yesterday, portraying himself as a victim, NATO as an aggressor, and Yugoslavia as a country divided and ravaged by the West.

"You basically have nothing, and that is why you have to concoct things, you have to invent things," he told the court in an opening statement that was rich in grisly detail about human suffering during the Balkans wars but that denied he played a significant role.

Dressed in a charcoal gray suit and a striped red-white-and-blue tie that matched the colors of his country's flag, he seemed to be addressing not just the judges and prosecutors, but his fellow Serbs and the people who may yet write the history of Yugoslavia's collapse.

"They have accused all Serbs inside and outside of Serbia who have supported me and who support me to this day," he said.

Despite continuing to challenge the legality of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, he acted as his own defense counsel in a trial that may provide the best accounting of the conflicts that engulfed his country.

At times, he rocked in his chair or waved his arms for emphasis. At other times, when he slipped on reading glasses, he looked almost like the banker he was before he began his climb to political power.

Milosevic, the first head of state in history to be tried for war crimes, has been charged with genocide and crimes against humanity in the Balkan wars of the 1990s in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo.

Sitting between two burly guards, Milosevic turned his head and played to all corners of the world court. He looked at the three-judge panel sitting to his left, to the prosecutors sitting in front of him, and the media and public seated to his right behind bullet-proof glass.

He waved photographs of people killed by NATO bombs unleashed during a 78-day air campaign to evict Serb troops from Kosovo in 1999 and provided commentary as other graphic photos were flashed in the court by a projector.

He sounded almost wistful as he mentioned the leaders he once faced as equals, including French President Jacques Chirac, whom he said he wants to call to testify, and then-U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke.

Milosevic was scornful of prosecutors, who over the previous two days had laid out their case alleging that he participated in a "joint criminal enterprise." He dismissed the notion that he pulled the strings in the Balkans when he dryly said one prosecutor "thinks that I am super-human, he has ascribed to me some magical God-like powers."

In many ways, the prosecutors and Milosevic weren't describing the same case.

The prosecutors have assembled documentary and forensic evidence about alleged atrocities and criminal activities conducted by Milosevic's regime during the 1990s.

Milosevic has countered by virtually brushing everything as an "ocean of lies" while launching a familiar argument that the true villains in the Balkans were the Western powers and their military arm, NATO.

"The whole world knows this is a political trial, and it has nothing to do with law," he said.

Even as he demanded to be set free to continue the trial - he promised not to flee - Milosevic seemed to revel in his role as a courtroom underdog facing accusers alone.

"There is an enormous apparatus on one side, a vast media structure on that same side ... everything is at your disposal," he said. "What is on my side? I only have a public telephone booth in the prison; that is the only thing I have available in order to face here the most terrible kind of libel addressed against my country, my people and me."

He likened the trial to a swimming race in which "you want to tie my hands and feet and let me swim that way."

The world has waited years for this trial, a judgment day that was set in motion when Milosevic was toppled from power in October 2000 and then transported to The Hague by Serbia's new rulers. He called those rulers "a puppet regime that has to listen to orders [from the West] but is not supported by the people."

To assess Milosevic's guilt or innocence will be a long process; the trial is expected to last up to two years. One reason for that long period is the detailed case that prosecutors seek to present. The other reason is that in defending himself, Milosevic, though schooled as an attorney, is expected to drag out the process, if for no other reason than he seems to live in a world of his own creation.

He still acts as if he runs a country instead of growing accustomed to his role as a defendant accused of the most heinous crimes in Europe's post-World War II history.

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