CALCULATED CRUELTY, MEDIVAL SAVAGERY; Charged with Terrible Crimes against Humanity, Slobodan Milosevic Face His Accusers in the Most Important International Trials since Nuremberg

Article excerpt

Byline: PAUL HARRIS

HE strode into court with a swagger. Slobodan Milosevic was the centre of attention now, and playing the stage like a master.

Slowly, he took his seat in the dock and cast his eyes around the room. In front of him was a British judge and too many lawyers to count. Through the bulletproof glass, he could see another hundred faces, every one of them fixed directly upon him.

Like a character from The Godfather, he pulled at his shirt cuff, checked his watch and adopted that familiar mask of defiance and contempt - the one which is so empty of emotion, you have to question whether he might even be listening.

But Slobodan Milosevic was listening yesterday. And he was ready to do battle, as he so smugly called it.

Here in a bland, grey courtroom, a bloodstained dictator was about to go on trial for the most appalling catalogue of torture, mass murder and atrocity since Hitler tried to wipe out the Jews. His body language almost dared them to start.

Yet when they did, the devastating allegations they had bookmarked over this last decade - and which they finally unleashed yesterday to describe his role as alleged architect of three murderous wars - seemed to pass impotently over his distinctive mane of silver-grey hair.

Genocide. Ethnic cleansing. The

'worst crimes known to humankind'. The chief prosecutor spat out the rest of her carefullycrafted phrases as if in disgust: 'Some of the incidents revealed an almost medieval savagery and calculated cruelty that went far beyond the bounds of legitimate warfare,' said Carla Del Ponte.

What emerged was the story of one man's fanatical lust for power, played out at the expense of 'unspeakable suffering for anyone who opposed him'.

Slobodan shrugged his shoulders as she spoke. True, he could not stop himself betraying obvious pride when they showed some ancient film of a young Milosevic, rallying his people in what was described as possibly the first realisation of his dream. A smirk spread all over his face.

But now they were talking about a baby being burned alive, and the screams of agony that were heard for two hours after Serbian troops set fire to a petrol-soaked house in which they imprisoned her with her mother.

Somewhere in the depths of his stone-cold heart, if there was any compassion, then Slobodan Milosevic would surely have shown it now. He leaned forward in his chair and drew a doodle on his pad.

Later he spoke for the first time to his amici curiae, the 'friends of the court' who have been assigned to ensure a fair hearing. With obscenely inappropriate nonchalance, he leaned forward and asked them: 'Do you hear this rubbish?

How can you not react?' This was how the most important war-crime trial since Nuremburg began at the Hague yesterday, when the law finally caught up with Slobodan Milosevic. Just to look

through the pages of the indictment was like starting the first chapter of a horror story. It was half an inch thick and peppered with names and ages of the dead.

Once, these were people, families, lives. Yesterday they were statistics.

But from beyond the grave, if they were fortunate enough to have one, they had also become evidence in an epic case that will put international justice to the test.

It began in the same understated way that courts conduct themselves all over the world. This was case number IT 0254T, said the clerk, and sat down.

Miss Del Ponte spoke of 'the daily scenes of grief and suffering that came to define armed conflict in former Yugoslavia'.

Some of the individual events had been logged in the annals of notoriety.

A new term, 'ethnic cleansing', had come into common use in our language.

'Some of the incidents revealed an almost medieval savagery and calculated cruelty that went far beyond the bounds of legitimate warfare,' she said. …