Convicting Milosevic

March 04, 2002|By Dusko Doder

VIENNA, Va. - One must wonder, watching the war crimes trial of Slobodan Milosevic, about what exactly the prosecution is trying to do.

Why call on witnesses who clearly had no clue - nor could be expected to have a clue - about the former Yugoslav dictator's "command responsibility" for much of the chaos, killings and destruction in the Balkans during the 1990s? What could an ethnic Albanian farmer possibly tell the Hague Tribunal about it?

There must be a good explanation for this.

Chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte has hinted that some strong witnesses - people from Mr. Milosevic's former entourage - will testify. She is also in possession of tape intercepts of Mr. Milosevic's phone conversations made by Western intelligence services. For now, we are left with ethnic Albanian farmers describing killings and burnings; Ms. Del Ponte insists it is important to show the Serbian people what crimes were committed under Mr. Milosevic.

The trial, so far, is disappointing. The tribunal's mission is not to educate the Serbian people but to try a man with an undisputed record of using war, terror and lies as key instruments of policy during the 1990s. As someone who has studied Mr. Milosevic and written extensively about him, I feel certain that he is guilty as charged. But my feeling is worthless in a court of law. It is up to the prosecution to offer clear and compelling evidence.

It is hard to imagine Ms. Del Ponte, a Swiss jurist under a Mafia death threat, coming up with the goods without the cooperation of Serbian authorities. She has made her reputation fighting organized crime.

But Sicilian gangsters are small potatoes compared with Mr. Milosevic. He ran a gangster-based regime and orchestrated organized lying throughout his years in power. He left no paper trail. He issued verbal orders to his henchmen, and only they can provide direct testimony about his "command responsibility." (Some of them were assassinated in Belgrade restaurants or simply vanished while he was still in power.)

Other things conspired to unwittingly make Ms. Del Ponte's job harder. One was the Clinton administration's long and disgraceful delay in indicting Mr. Milosevic. Only after the faltering initial weeks of the 1999 Kosovo war did Washington and London hastily provide the prosecution with intelligence information about Mr. Milosevic's misdeeds in Kosovo, which arguably was a case of armed rebellion by ethnic Albanian secessionists. The indictment was expanded later to include the wars in Croatia and Bosnia, where Mr. Milosevic is far more vulnerable.

Another real downside is trying international villains on live television. As an experienced politician, Mr. Milosevic seems quicker on his feet than his accusers. He is more familiar with the medium and clearly relishes the opportunity to parade his calumnies on a world stage. His arrogance and brazen disregard for the truth - the hallmark of his personality - are designed for his new role of a brave Serb martyr fighting the entire world.

The result, at least in the initial stages, is a political show in which Mr. Milosevic is striving mightily to turn his own trial into a trial of the Hague court itself.

He insists, as he has done all along, that the tribunal is illegal and that it was set up by the United States and other NATO countries who want "to ascribe to me crimes that they perpetrated themselves."

At the same time, however, he has availed himself of court proceedings - his right to defend himself - to punch daily holes in the prosecution's case. He intends to call and cross-examine former President Bill Clinton, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, French President Jacques Chirac and other senior Western leaders.

There are still a dozen or so people who were in the inner circle of the former dictator. Some may have been in touch with Ms. Del Ponte, who had said it would take "courage" for them to testify. Perhaps the two strongest potential witnesses are the former chiefs of secret police and military intelligence - Jovica Stanisic and Gen. Alexander Dimitrijevic. Both were dismissed for opposing Mr. Milosevic's Kosovo policy; both were deeply involved in planning and orchestrating ethnic cleansing and other crimes in Bosnia and Croatia.

This means providing them with immunity from prosecution in exchange for their testimony. Failure to do this could discredit the court and derail attempts to create a permanent international criminal court.

Ms. Del Ponte is charting muddy waters. The only parallel we have is the Nuremberg trials after World War II, but that was a case of victor's justice. Mr. Milosevic was not defeated nor his country occupied by the allied troops. He was extradited to The Hague by Serbian authorities; to obtain conviction, Ms. Del Ponte will need their help.

Mr. Milosevic is keenly aware of this. He has been trying to exploit Serbia's psychological insecurities by claiming that The Hague process is an anti-Serbian witch-hunt and that the charges against him are an insult to the entire Serbian nation.

Ms. Del Ponte must not permit this. Nor should she allow the trial to drag on for months or years.

Evidence against Mr. Milosevic exists, and it is up to her to exercise pragmatism and diplomatic tact to obtain it and thus secure his conviction.

The risk is that otherwise The Hague process will become a farce and will not, as many hoped, open a new era of international justice in which evil dictators can be called to account for their murderous misdeeds.

Dusko Doder is a journalist and an author whose latest book, with Louise Branson, is Milosevic: Portrait of a Tyrant (Free Press, 1999).

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