The trial of Milosevic

Print edition : March 02, 2002

The former Yugoslav President, in his response to the charges against him, accuses the West of having perpetrated genocide and other crimes against humanity.

THE trial of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic for "crimes against humanity and genocide" is widely described as one of the most important legal events in the post-War period. Milosevic is the first head of state to be tried for alleged war crimes. The former President has refused to recognise the legality of the international tribunal at The Hague, and he has described the proceedings as an example of victor's justice. The prosecutors hold Milosevic responsible for most of the atrocities committed against Bosnians, Albanians and Croats during the civil strife, when he held the most powerful position in Serbia. Milosevic told the court that "they are actually holding a trial of the whole country here, a country that stood up in defence" against its attackers.

Slobodan Milosevic.-ROBIN UTRECHT/POOL/AP

For that matter, most countries view the tribunal with a great deal of suspicion. The Indian government has expressed serious doubts about its legality although it has not protested loudly. The Bush administration, for reasons of its own, is seen as being lukewarm towards the court, though the Clinton administration played an important role in setting it up as it went about implementing its plan to detach Kosovo from the Yugoslav Republic. Chief war crimes prosecutor Carla del Ponte worked in close cooperation with President Bill Clinton's Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in building a case against Milosevic. Interestingly, the same countries that banded together to wage the war against Yugoslavia in 1999 are the ones that are subsidising the international tribunal.

Before Milosevic began his three-day-long response to the charges, he demanded that the trial judges respond to his pre-trial motions that the court was illegal and that his extradition to The Hague was against the Yugoslav Constitution. Milosevic has refused to acknowledge the right of the court to judge him and declined to engage a lawyer. There is a strong opinion in the international community that heads of state can only be held accountable by the courts of their own country and that the Milosevic case may set an unhealthy precedent.

The charges against Milosevic relate to the wars in Bosnia, which witnessed two serious massacres in 1992 and 1995 and deaths of civilians in Kosovo during the war led by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in 1999. Milosevic has insisted that as President of Serbia he had no control over the hardline Serb militia that operated in neighbouring Bosnia. "Nationalism was incited, the flames were fanned, to become a full-fledged civil war," he told the court. Milosevic is accused of providing military, political and logistical support to Bosnian Serbs. He denied that he had helped Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb militia leader, in his drive against Muslims and Croats in Bosnia. He told the court that only humanitarian help was given to Bosnian Serbs. He clarified that Belgrade's relations with the Bosnian Serb leadership were bad. "We were leftists and they were rightists," Milosevic told the court.

In the case of Kosovo, it is no secret that more Albanians died as a result of NATO bombing in 1999 than owing to atrocities by the Serbs. Milosevic argued in his long and persuasive political statement to the international tribunal that it was the West that had a vested interest in ensuring that the people of Kosovo became refugees so that the NATO war on Yugoslavia could be justified. Milosevic told the court that it was the West that had committed genocide and crimes against humanity. "I am asking what kind of a tribunal is this if you refuse to try people responsible for the crimes by the leaders and armies of NATO countries," he told the judges.

Milosevic insisted that Albanians were driven out of Kosovo by hardline Albanians who belonged to extremist groups such as the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), following the NATO bombings. The KLA "referred to all Albanians who did not flee Kosovo as traitors," he said. Milosevic added that "an illusion of exodus" was created with hundreds of Western television cameras "waiting across the borders to show the alleged Serb misdeeds". To buttress his arguments, Milosevic showed graphic footage of civilians killed by NATO bombs in Kosovo and the rest of Serbia in 1999. Milosevic remarked that some of these groups were known to have close links with Al Qaeda. Only after September 11 has the West been trying to ferret out alleged Al Qaeda activists in the Balkans.

Slobodan Milosevic appears before the United Nations War Crimes Tribunal at a high-security facility in The Hague on February 14. Milosevic does not acknowledge the right of the court to judge him and has not engaged a lawyer.-PAUL VREEKER/AP

AT the beginning of his political statement, Milosevic justified his actions in Kosovo as "a struggle against terrorism". He described the charge that he was responsible for the exodus of Albanians from Kosovo as a terrible fabrication. Milosevic reiterated that the case was not against him but against the entire Serbian people. "They want to make me accountable for the crimes they themselves perpetrated. The struggle against terrorism in the heart of one's own country, in one's own home, is considered to be a crime. Our defence was a heroic defence against the aggression of the NATO pact."

To bolster his arguments, Milosevic showed the court a video documentary prepared by the German ARD television. It showed footage of Serbs massacred by Albanian extremists in Kosovo and interviews with senior German officials who were critical of the NATO war on Yugoslavia. The documentary concludes that the NATO campaign in Yugoslavia was "a violation of international law in which innocent civilians lost their lives". Milosevic described the documentary as a "tiny atom of truth in the ocean of lies".

The former Yugoslav President accused NATO of using cluster bombs indiscriminately during the war. Although cluster bombs are not banned under international law, they pose a grave danger to civilian populations. NATO also used weapons containing depleted uranium. Milosevic showed the court pictorial evidence of young children and aged women killed by NATO cluster bombs. He said that NATO preferred to bomb at night in order to "maximise death among the sleeping civilians".

Milosevic accused NATO of repeatedly violating the Geneva conventions and international norms on war. Among the targets hit in Yugoslavia were a hospital, a retirement home and a sanatorium full of patients.

Amnesty International, in a comprehensive report on the NATO war on Yugoslavia, "Collateral Damage or Unlawful Killings?", has singled out the direct attack on the headquarters of Serbian State Television and Radio as a serious violation of the laws of war leading to the unlawful killing of civilians. Sixteen civilians were killed in that attack. Amnesty has listed several such instances of attacks on civilian targets leading to the death of more than 120 civilians.

Milosevic accused the West of orchestrating a political trial when in fact the latter was responsible for the destruction of the Yugoslav Federation. He cogently traced the chronology of events that led to the NATO-led war. He asserted that it was the West that incited Slovenians first to secede from the Yugoslav Federation. That started the bloody unravelling of the federation. "Your bosses broke up Yugoslavia," he told the tribunal. "They pushed Bosnia into a civil war. The Serbs did not start the war. It is nonsensical to accuse the wrong side, " Milosevic argued.

The Amnesty report observes that NATO aircraft bombed the village of Korisa, killing a large number of displaced ethnic Albanians who had taken shelter there. The death roll was 87, and 78 were wounded. Milosevic, in his statement to the court, said that the targeting of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade by U.S. planes was also a deliberate act. "It is quite clear that Clinton wanted to go down in history as the first man to bomb Chinese territory, by bombing the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade," Milosevic said. Several Chinese diplomats and journalists were killed in that incident, and that led to a surge of anti-American feelings in China.

The Milosevic trial is expected to last at least for another two years. The former Yugoslav President has announced that he intends to call to testify at his trial all the leading actors who were involved in the machinations that led to the 1999 war. They include Clinton, Madeleine Albright, French President Jacques Chirac and United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Milosevic said that he would cross-examine the star witnesses himself. If Clinton and Co. refuse to cooperate, the defendant has the right to ask the judge to summon them to appear before the tribunal.

In a way, the West is as much on trial as Milosevic is. After all, both sides are accusing each other of having committed genocide and crimes against humanity.

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