Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Five years on, Milosevic is still in the dock

By Vesna Peric Zimonjic in Belgrade

February 2006

The trial of the former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, the first sitting head of state to be indicted for war crimes, enters its fifth year this week amid expectations that a verdict will be pronounced by the end of the year.

Mr Milosevic, 64, faces 66 charges stemming from the Balkan wars of the 1990s. He is accused of genocide against Muslims in Bosnia, war crimes and grave breaches of international conventions in the military offensives that led his forces into Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo.

More than 300 witnesses have taken the stand, including Western politicians and the leaders of the former Yugoslav states torn apart by the war. Yet far from undermining Mr Milosevic's reputation in Serbia, the trial has provided the former leader with a new propaganda tool.

"The indictment against Mr Milosevic is the most serious one laid by the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague," said human rights activist Biljana Kovacevic Vuco. But "media coverage should deal more with the indictment itself, rather than with the comments of Mr Milosevic and his witnesses."

The live broadcasts of the trial and some media reporting have had a counter-productive effect on the public, which is still deeply divided as to what really happened in the conflict.

Mr Milosevic concentrates on discrediting the court by depicting it as illegitimate and anti-Serb. At this stage of the trial, his defence witnesses are taking the stand and placing all the blame for the wars on an evil world conspiracy against the Serbs. They attack the "unprovoked" Nato bombing campaign in 1999, which they say was aimed at annihilating the Serb nation.

Television broadcasts of the trial have provided Mr Milosevic with a political platform in Serbia and the chance to seek revenge against those who toppled him in 2000.

The prosecution and Mr Milosevic have called 350 witnesses since February 2002. The former Serbian leader has only 22 working days left in the defence proceedings. Once this part is over, the panel of three judges will need months of deliberation before delivering their verdict.

But Mr Milosevic's presence in Serbia comes not just through the trial broadcasts. His influence on local politics remains strong, through regular consultations and decisions taken with aides in Belgrade. Delegations of Socialists regularly visit him, while phone communications take place almost daily.

Mr Milosevic's Socialist party supports the minority government of Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica in the parliament only after his instructions arrive from The Hague. Such was the case when the Serbian budget was adopted recently, Socialist leader Ivica Dacic has confirmed.

The trial of Mr Milosevic is among the longest in the annals of international justice. It has been adjourned more than 20 times due to his high blood pressure, flu or other health reasons. Since 2003, trial hearings have been scheduled for only three days a week to provide rest for the ailing Mr Milosevic, who acts as his own lawyer after successfully appealing the imposition of a defence team.

In December, Mr Milosevic asked to be transferred to Moscow, to obtain "proper" medical care. A ruling is expected shortly.

Most Serbs think the request had nothing to do with his health. They believe Mr Milosevic is desperate to see his wife, Mira Markovic, who fled to Russia in 2003. She used to visit Mr Milosevic regularly until then, but can no longer do so. The couple's son, Marko, also lives in Russia, where he fled from Serbia days after Mr Milosevic was ousted.

As Serbs still struggle to come to terms with the legacy of the conflict,the Sarajevo-based Investigation and Documentation Centre has halved the number of people estimated to have been killed in Bosnia between 1992 and 1995.

Mirsad Tokaca, the head of the Centre, funded and financed by Norway, finalised a list of 100,000 citizens of Bosnia killed in the war. Some 70 per cent of victims were Bosnian Muslims, about 25 per cent were Serbs and 5 per cent Croats.

"This is still an extremely high figure, but there is a big difference now that people cannot irresponsibly use inflated numbers for their political goals," Mr Tokaca recently said in Sarajevo.

The €450,000 project to establish the exact toll is likely to be completed by the end of March, with all the confirmed victims' names made available on the internet.

Long road to justice

* FEBRUARY 2002 Trial opens with chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte accusing Milosevic of responsibility for incidents of "calculated cruelty". Milosevic challenges court's legitimacy

* MARCH 2002 First witnesses testify in secret. Lord Ashdown testifies about indiscriminate shelling of ethnic Albanian villages in Kosovo

* MAY 2002 Kosovo President Ibrahim Rugova clashes with Milosevic

* SEPTEMBER 2002 Trial moves from the subject of Kosovo to Bosnia and Croatia with Milosevic charged with genocide

* OCTOBER 2002 Milosevic confronted by President Stjipe Mesic of Croatia

* JUNE 2003 Former Yugoslav president Zoran Lilic says Milosevic had nothing to do with Srebrenica massacre

* SEPTEMBER 2003 Trial hearings scaled back to three days each week

* NOVEMBER 2003 Lord Owen testifies that Milosevic had strong power over Bosnian and Croatian Serb rebels

* FEBRUARY 2004 Prosecution case rests

* AUGUST 2004 Milosevic opens defence

The Independent

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