Milosevic on trial: an update

SUN JOURNAL

Tribunal: The war-crimes proceedings against the former Yugloslav president make history - and provide lessons in it.

May 13, 2002|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN STAFF

Three months into the trial of Slobodan Milosevic, the horrors he is charged with committing in the former Yugoslavia are being relived in vivid detail at his trial at The Hague in the Netherlands.

With the Middle East crisis and international terrorism claiming the world stage, the spotlight has not been as bright as it otherwise would be on the first war-crimes trial of a head of state.

But playing out behind thick bulletproof glass in a courtroom of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia is both history and a history lesson.

Witnesses to the brutalities in the Balkans have testified. Milosevic has desperately sought to spin the trial as judgment on NATO and the West. In a classic confrontation, the president of Kosovo sparred with Milosevic from the witness stand.

Here is an update on The Hague proceedings, with information from staff and wire reports and transcripts of the trial provided by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, which can be found at http://www.un.org/icty/transe54/transe54.htm.

The charges

Milosevic, who led the former Yugoslavia, is defending himself against charges of crimes against humanity in the Balkan wars of the 1990s in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo. He is charged with genocide in Bosnia. Black-robed prosecutors, in opening statements, called his behavior "calculated cruelty" and "medieval savagery."

The indictment related to Bosnia is the most serious and holds him responsible for the deaths of thousands of Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats, including women and the elderly, from 1992 to 1995.

In Kosovo, the charges are related to the slaughter of thousands of Albanians in 1999, before NATO bombings compelled Serb forces to withdraw. The indictment related to Croatia covers killings and other offenses in 1991 and 1992.

Milosevic faces additional charges of funneling billions of dollars of state money into foreign accounts.

The defense

A former banker with some training as a lawyer, Milosevic is handling his own defense. He does not recognize the legitimacy of the court, claiming it is a tool of the West, and calls the charges against him "an ocean of lies."

Milosevic's defense has been far from focused, but much of it centers on three arguments: He knew little about the wars in the early 1990s; his government fought only to defend itself; and the West is primarily to blame for the number of deaths, which are in the hundreds of thousands.

When Sarajevo was being blasted apart by Bosnian Serb artillery, he was trying to stop the fighting, Milosevic argued in his opening statements.

NATO bombing, which eventually toppled him from power in October 2000, was responsible for most of the dead Albanians, he said.

The testimony

In a courtroom scene too over-the-top for Hollywood, Milosevic squared off this month with Ibrahim Rugova, the president of Kosovo and a witness for the prosecution.

Rugova had led passive resistance against Milosevic's rule in Kosovo, Serbia's southern province.

When the two last met, in 1999, Rugova said, he was under house arrest, forced to denounce the West for seeking to destroy Yugoslavia. With Rugova free and Milosevic under arrest, the role reversal produced heated exchanges. Judges from the tribunal interrupted to remind them that the proceedings were designed to air not insults but evidence.

In a single point of agreement, the two men acknowledged meeting in 1999, with the Kosovo conflict at its most deadly. But they could not have given more contradictory accounts of how the meetings transpired.

Rugova said that he feared Milosevic's forces were going to kill him as they kept him under house arrest in Pristina, the Kosovo capital, and that he was forced to denounce the West as part of a bid by Milosevic to divide ethnic Albanian opposition to Serb rule.

Milosevic exploded. With his face red and contorted, he protested that he was merely preventing separatist guerrillas from the Kosovo Liberation Army from assassinating Rugova.

At one point, in cross-examining Rugova, Milosevic glared at him and demanded, "Look me in the eyes and tell me whether that is true or not."

Replied Rugova, glancing at his longtime nemesis: "That is not true. That is not true."

In quiet tones, Rugova told the court and Milosevic, "Belgrade clearly decided to destroy Kosovo through violence and war. This was a calmly done cleansing of the population."

All of this occurred after witnesses provided the court with harrowing accounts of the attacks on Kosovo. They described Serb forces surrounding entire villages in remote, mountainous parts of Kosovo. Electricity and telephone lines were cut off, they testified, and then civilian houses were shelled.

One ethnic Albanian testified that Milosevic's forces slaughtered 16 of his relatives.

Several witnesses have testified from behind closed doors.

The future

At its beginning, the trial was projected to last about two years. There are no indications this has changed.

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