Milosevic at the Bar

By Borden, Anthony | The Nation, April 1, 2002 | Go to article overview

Milosevic at the Bar


Borden, Anthony, The Nation


The trial in The Hague of the first state president indicted for genocide was to be the ultimate showdown. In the culmination of a fifty-year struggle by the human rights community against impunity, the firm weight of evidence and international law would be brought to bear on one of the world's most brutal dictators, Slobodan Milosevic. But the set-piece confrontation that began on February 12--a combined case covering three wars over ten years, which is expected to last more than two years--soon ran into problems.

By refusing legal counsel because he rejects the legitimacy of the court, Milosevic did more than insure the image of himself sitting alone against the world. He also gave himself license to thunder, without risking cross-examination, about the Balkan wars as a Western "Nazi" conspiracy to destroy socialist Yugoslavia. "This is a political trial that has nothing to do with the law," he declared.

For procedural reasons, the judges had the case run backward, starting with Kosovo and later taking up the earlier wars in Croatia and Bosnia. This allowed Milosevic to focus initially on the NATO bombing campaign--spending many hours in his opening speech listing civilians and civilian institutions hit (and including many horribly graphic photographs) and stressing his argument that Albanians fled Western bombs, not Serbian forces.

Milosevic played to public opinion, and much of Belgrade was delighted, with a local poll giving his performance high marks and his proud wife, Mira, beaming. If the tribunal hoped to break through Serbia's deep rejection of any responsibility for the wars and atrocities, the proceedings appeared to be having the opposite effect. "He has decided to work for the Serbian people and not for himself. He has broken the media lies produced about us," boasted one parliamentarian from Milosevic's Socialist Party.

Nor has Milosevic been totally alone outside Serbia. The International Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic, comprising activists, lawyers and intellectuals (including Harold Pinter and Ramsey Clark) has asserted that the "kangaroo court" with its "victor's justice" is illegitimate because the UN Security Council does not have explicit authority under Chapter VII of its charter to establish tribunals. Critics of the court also focused on small errors and confused witnesses in a prosecution case that began weakly. Some Albanians who took the stand seemed lost, failing to nail down the points sought by the prosecution or appearing overwhelmed by Milosevic's aggressive questioning.

The presiding judge, who sparred so fiercely with the defendant in preliminary proceedings, settled into a routine allowing him fairly wide latitude to cross-examine witnesses, only occasionally scolding, "That is enough, Mr. Milosevic." The schedule of the prosecution's case is constantly revised, as the defendant draws out lengthy (sometimes surprisingly well-prepared) cross-examinations stressing the violence of NATO, the Kosovo Liberation Army and even Al Qaeda against innocent Serbs.

It was easy to imagine Milosevic's performance sending quivers down spines at

the US State Department and European foreign ministries as he threatened to call world leaders to the stand, highlight contradictions in the West's Balkans policy as well as civilian deaths caused by its actions, and plot the judicial free-for-all Western governments most fear. …

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