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Milosevic Scoffs at U.N. Tribunal

Justice: Yugoslavia's former president refuses to enter a plea on war crimes charges or be represented by a lawyer. He terms the proceedings in The Hague illegal.

July 04, 2001|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

THE HAGUE — Radiating contempt for the outside world, which has called him to account for a decade of bloody mayhem, former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic defied a war crimes tribunal Tuesday by refusing to retain defense counsel or enter a plea.

"I consider this tribunal false tribunal and indictments false indictments," Milosevic told the court in imperfect English at his initial appearance on four counts of war crimes, for which he would spend the rest of his life in prison if convicted. "It is illegal, being not appointed by U.N. General Assembly, so I have no need to appoint counsel to illegal organ."

The man held responsible by many of his countrymen and much of the international community for four wars that left more than 200,000 people dead and millions homeless staged a classic performance for the tribunal, which was created by the U.N. Security Council in 1993.

His head held high, jaw thrust forward and his six brief comments dripping with disdain, Milosevic struck an arrogant and combative pose at this early opportunity in what promises to be a long confrontation.

Presiding Judge Richard May offered Milosevic the chance to have the full 54-page indictment read to him, to which the defendant responded: "That's your problem."

May said the court would treat that reply as a waiver of Milosevic's right to hear the charges against him in their entirety, then asked him if he was prepared to enter a plea or preferred to think it over for as many as 30 days.

With bulldog tenacity and switching to his native Serbo-Croatian language, Milosevic launched into a diatribe against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which bombed Yugoslavia in 1999 to halt "ethnic cleansing" of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, a province of the country's dominant republic, Serbia.

"This trial's aim is to produce false justification for the war crimes of NATO committed in Yugoslavia," Milosevic said when asked if he was ready to plead.

"Mr. Milosevic, I asked you a question: Do you want to enter your plea today, or are you asking for adjournment to consider the matter further?" May pressed.

"I have given you my answer," Milosevic snapped, launching into another excoriation of "this so-called tribunal" before May cut him off with the warning that "this is not the time to make speeches."

The presiding judge said the court was interpreting the response from Milosevic, who pointedly declined translation headphones, as "failure to enter a plea," and entered not guilty pleas on all four counts on the defendant's behalf.

Twelve minutes after opening the most-watched proceeding in the tribunal's eight-year history, the court adjourned until Aug. 27.

Milosevic's refusal to recognize the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia's right to try him may reflect a well-considered strategy to make Chief Prosecutor Carla Del Ponte's burden more difficult, as she will have to tread warily against a defendant making no effort to cooperate in the proceedings.

But Milosevic's demeanor might just as well emanate from a perception of himself as the victim, railing as he did against NATO. That martyred posture still plays to his nationalist supporters back home, although to fewer than he might imagine in the wake of his stealthy extradition. A few thousand Yugoslav loyalists have attended protests against his Thursday hand-over to tribunal authorities, but the majority of his countrymen appear to view his departure as a chance for a fresh start with European neighbors.

Dressed in a slate-blue suit, a pale blue shirt and a striped tie in the red, white and blue of the Yugoslav flag, Milosevic was escorted into Courtroom No. 1 of the tribunal five minutes ahead of the three-judge panel conducting his arraignment. He immediately sat down at the defense table to one side of the courtroom, crossing and recrossing his legs with studied indifference. When the judges entered, he had to be nudged by a guard into standing after failing to heed the bailiff's "all rise" call.

Milosevic appeared bemused by the packed public gallery on the other side of a bulletproof glass partition, where 80 journalists watched the short appearance. He glared scornfully at reporters he recognized from his days in the limelight in Belgrade, the Yugoslav and Serbian capital, where he presided over a decade of brutal warfare before being toppled by pro-reform forces in October.

Glancing at his watch as he was escorted out of the courtroom, Milosevic commented dryly to a guard: "Ten minutes."

The brevity of his first contact with the court, though, is unlikely to herald short or expeditious proceedings ahead.

Even if Milosevic continues to refuse defense counsel, the prosecution is obliged to disclose its evidence and witnesses in order to give him an opportunity to prepare a rebuttal, said Jim Landale, chief spokesman for the tribunal.

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