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Milosevic's Defiance Is Taking Its Toll on Him--and His Trial

Justice: Ex-strongman's insistence on playing the martyr has meant illness and numerous delays.

August 06, 2002|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

THE HAGUE — He's in a maximum-security prison, at grave risk of a heart attack and on trial facing 66 counts of war crimes. Yet in his mind--the only domain where Slobodan Milosevic remains omnipotent--the erstwhile Balkan strongman is still calling the shots.

By refusing expert defense counsel in his trial before the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, Milosevic has cast himself in the role of wily attorney defending the falsely accused. It is the performance of a lifetime, even if played more for his shrinking audience of supporters back home than for the three-judge panel that will decide his future.

In the nearly six months since his trial began, the 60-year-old former Yugoslav president has shown himself to be diligent in preparing cross-examinations and alert to inconsistencies in witness testimony, say court observers and prosecution sources.

But the workload he carries in the biggest war crimes trial since Nazi leaders were brought to justice in Nuremberg is taking its toll on Milosevic's health and threatening to further slow proceedings that will, under the best of circumstances, run two more years.

And in that "martyred" state of a man working himself to death to fight a bloodless bureaucracy, Milosevic is playing the abused victim and calling the court's authority into question.

A lawyer by training but not in practice, Milosevic spends hours each night preparing for the next day's parade of prosecution witnesses, who have already numbered more than 100, with 177 left to go. He has so far cross-examined every one of them, often drawing rebukes from Judge Richard May for badgering, wasting time with irrelevant questions or trying to put the North Atlantic Treaty Organization instead of himself on trial for the 1999 war over Kosovo province.

"He has the ability to hold up his rights and his presumption of innocence, and he has made absolutely clear that he will challenge the prosecution at every step," said the court's spokesman, Jim Landale. "But he is entitled to do that, just as he is entitled to the right to defend himself."

Milosevic has also drawn out the trial by refusing to accept any written documentation into the record without live witness testimony, said Florence Hartmann, spokeswoman for chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte.

"In most cases, we meet with defense counsel and agree to accept written statements about matters that are beyond dispute," Hartmann said. "But Milosevic has refused to accept anything, which is his right, but it means we have to present witness after witness to establish even the simplest matters of fact."

In keeping with his view that the tribunal has no authority to try him, Milosevic refuses to meet with the prosecution for disclosure. His wife, Mirjana Markovic, visits him in prison often but has never attended the proceedings.

Though court officials want the case kept on schedule, they are confronted with the quandary of whether to impose counsel on Milosevic against his will or let the trial continue to be interrupted and the interests of swift justice defeated. As time passes, they argue, witnesses move on with their lives and memories fade, making it increasingly difficult to present an effective prosecution.

The deposed leader blamed for the chaos that devastated the disintegrating Yugoslav federation in the 1990s has twice fallen ill with flu, resulting in a two-week postponement of the trial each time. He also took off two days in July because of high blood pressure. Each of his health problems has left the prosecution accommodating and consoling frightened witnesses brought in on assurances that their time here would be safe, anonymous and short-lived.

A report by two U.N.-appointed cardiologists called in to examine Milosevic after the latest no-show warned the tribunal that he was at "severe cardiovascular risk" and should be under constant observation, May told the court as it prepared for a four-week summer recess that began June 29.

Milosevic's wife has accused the court of trying to exhaust him, and Belgrade attorney Dragoslav Ognjanovic, one of two lawyers with special access to Milosevic as "advisors," has condemned the five-days-a-week, four-hours-a-day trial schedule as "infernal."

The results of an extensive physical examination of Milosevic are due to the court by the time testimony resumes at the end of August. But the accused is unlikely to get much rest during the break unless he retains help to prepare for the second phase of the prosecution. That leg, which starts in September, will present evidence of crimes allegedly committed during the 1991-95 wars in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

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