Blame It on the Archduke: Adam Sage Watches Slobodan Milosevic, on Trial in the Hague, Frustrate the Judge and the Prosecuting Lawyers by Dredging Up the Feuds and Military Clashes of Ancient History

By Sage, Adam | New Statesman (1996), November 4, 2002 | Go to article overview

Blame It on the Archduke: Adam Sage Watches Slobodan Milosevic, on Trial in the Hague, Frustrate the Judge and the Prosecuting Lawyers by Dredging Up the Feuds and Military Clashes of Ancient History


Sage, Adam, New Statesman (1996)


In courtroom number one at the international criminal tribunal in The Hague, Judge Richard May frowned. Here he was, presiding over the most important case of his life -- the most important case held anywhere since the Nuremberg trials -- and it was slipping out of control. It would have been difficult enough under any circumstances to try Slobodan Milosevic in connection with almost a decade of events in the Balkans. But with the former Serbian ruler bent on distorting the judicial framework that May had elaborated, the whole thing was becoming unwieldy -- and the judge frustrated.

May leant forward, passed a weary hand across his brow and looked with ill-disguised anger as Milosevic cross-examined the Croatian head of state, Stjepan Mesic.

To a legal mind such as May's, there were obvious questions to put to Mesic, who had just given evidence about the 1991 conflict in Croatia that presaged the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. What were the Serbian paramilitaries doing at the time? How many of them were there? Who was their head?

But May was not asking the questions, Milosevic was, and he was unconcerned by such details. No, what interested him was the broad sweep of a Balkan history in which, he said, Serbs had been confined to the role of innocent victims. He cited, for example, a celebrated Croatian intellectual, Ante Starcevic, to back up his claim. Starcevic, he said, had described the Serbs as "filthy spawn, horrible slaves, people who were fit for the axe, Austrian dogs, and inflated bags".

May was puzzled: "When was this kind of thing written?"

Milosevic answered: "In 1870."

Mesic cut in, arguing that Serbian expansionism was even older, dating from the writings of the academic Vuk Stefanovic Karadzic, who was born in 1787. "He said everyone is a Serb, that the Croats were nothing but Serbs of Catholic faith." To prove his point, Mesic evoked the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Serbian nationalists in Sarajevo in 1914.

By now, May had had enough: "The trial chamber is not assisted by the exchange of abuse ... of 100 years ago.

He was right. Here, at Milosevic's trial for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague, there are eight years of events-starting in 1991 and ending in 1999 -- and 66 charges.

The first six months were taken up with the prosecution case concerning Kosovo, in 1999. The next six months will look at the Croatian and Bosnian wars, before Milosevic begins his defence. A verdict is not expected before the end of next year.

No wonder, then, that May is determined to keep the trial within the preconceived framework. After all, it is a complicated task to find out what happened in the Balkans in the 1990s, without worrying about the 19th century there.

Yet Milosevic refuses this logic, implying that he is not a normal defendant wanting to disprove the allegations he is facing. Instead, he is to undermine the entire courtroom process, and any argument - historical, geographical, political, sociologicial -- is a weapon to him.

Sometimes cleverly, often cynically, he plays upon the weaknesses of a court that by no means enjoys universal acceptance, consistently evoking events beyond its remit to underline his claim that it is an arbitrary and unfair institution. This strategy enables him to dominate proceedings in The Hague, where his absurd conspiracy theories are far more captivating than the slow, painstaking and jargon-ridden case built by the prosecution barristers.

Consider, for instance, the witness who followed Mesic into courtroom number one -- a Serbian soldier, born in Croatia, who was referred to only as C-037 to protect his identity.

He was there to talk about the violence that spread across Western Slavonia in Croatia in 1991, but found himself cross-examined on the detention camps set up by the Croatian Ustashas who collaborated with the Nazis during the Second World War. …

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