Judge's serious illness hampers Milosevic trial

Additional delays - even a mistrial - now appear possible

February 22, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

THE HAGUE, Netherlands - Richard May, the British judge who presides over the war crimes trial of Slobodan Milosevic, has fallen ill, adding a new setback to the two-year-old process, which has been beset by difficulties from the start.

Officials at the United Nations tribunal say that the nature of the judge's illness is a private matter and decline to discuss it. But because of its seriousness, some said, officials are bracing for the possibility that the judge may not be able to return to his duties any time soon and may have to be replaced.

The 65-year-old judge, who has a reputation for keeping tight control over his courtroom, has headed the three-judge panel trying Milosevic, the former president of Yugoslavia, since the trial began in February 2002. The others are Patrick Robinson from Jamaica and O-Gon Kwon from South Korea.

May has been absent from the court since late January. No official announcement has been made, except that he was unwell. But the looming disruption in the trial has already caused consternation at the tribunal and intense discussion behind the scenes on how to proceed.

Naming a new judge, lawyers at the court said, at the very least would add further delays to a trial that has been regularly slowed or halted by the frequent bouts of illness of Milosevic, who suffers from high blood pressure and heart disease. A new judge would require time to plow through the transcripts of almost 300 court days, including the testimony of as many witnesses.

But other complications may arise. Under the rules, Milosevic, who acts as his own defense counsel, would have to consent to naming a substitute judge. The judges could overrule him under certain conditions, legal experts said, but even then he would have a right to appeal their decision. A greater worry, they said, is that Milosevic could seek a ruling of a mistrial..

The complex war crimes trial, the first of its kind for a modern head of state, is just now reaching its halfway point as the prosecution prepares to rest its case. Prosecutors had hoped to close their case last Thursday, but the final hearings have been postponed several times on orders of Milosevic's doctors, who reported as they have in the past that his blood pressure was too high for him to attend court.

Since its start, the trial has been postponed more than a dozen times because the defendant had the flu, exhaustion or heart problems, causing him to miss 65 days in court.

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