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Milosevic Insists He Merely Tried to Defend Serbs

Trial: Yugoslav ex-leader rejects blame for crimes committed in the wars over Croatia and Bosnia.

September 27, 2002|WILLIAM WALLACE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

THE HAGUE — In an imperious manner that suggested he was still running Yugoslavia rather than standing trial for crimes against humanity, former President Slobodan Milosevic on Thursday derided prosecutors' claims that he bore responsibility for the criminal carnage of the early 1990s Balkan wars. Instead, he portrayed himself as a peacemaker reluctantly drawn into war to protect Serbs trapped as minorities on the wrong side of borders when the fighting broke out.

"I do not challenge that I tried to help the Serbs of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina survive," said Milosevic, who is defending himself before a tribunal whose authority he claims not to recognize. "As for this false indictment, it deprives Serbs of all rights--the right to life and the right to defend themselves."

The true villains, he alleged in a presentation that veered between trenchant geopolitical analysis and obtuse conspiracy theories, were Croatian fascists and Islamic fundamentalists who he said provoked a war to tear apart the Yugoslav federation.

Milosevic was speaking here at the opening of the second phase of his war crimes trial, during which United Nations prosecutors will try to link him to criminal acts committed during the wars of secession in Croatia and Bosnia, when he was president of Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic.

The 61-count indictment alleges that he had "effective control" over army troops and paramilitary gangs that terrorized non-Serbs, making him a party to genocide, forced deportations and crimes against humanity such as torture.

Prosecutors acknowledge that it will be a more difficult case to make than the recently concluded phase of the trial, which focused on the 1999 Kosovo conflict. Then, Milosevic was president of Yugoslavia and it was easier to establish lines of communication and command to the Yugoslav and Serbian forces in the field.

During the earlier Croatian and Bosnian conflicts, the fighting happened in jurisdictions outside what remains of Yugoslavia, and prosecutors are believed to have less forensic evidence linking Milosevic to atrocities.

"He was not in there pulling the trigger," one war crimes investigator in The Hague told The Times. "We have to show he knew what was going on and, at best, did nothing to stop it."

Yet prosecutors laid out an ambitious case in their opening arguments.

Milosevic operated in a "curiously empty room," dealing with people on a one-to-one basis so they would not know what others were being told, lead counsel Geoffrey Nice said.

However, the British prosecutor promised to produce witnesses from the former president's inner circle at the time who will craft a portrait of Milosevic as a Serbian nationalist who participated in a "joint criminal venture" to carve a Greater Serbia out of the disintegrating Yugoslav federation.

And that, Nice said, constitutes genocide. "The accused intended to destroy the Bosnian Muslim population in part or in whole in order to achieve those aims," he told the tribunal.

To buttress his contention, Nice produced two population maps: a prewar version showing the Yugoslav federation's then-jumble of ethnic groups, and a later, "much tidier map, bought by thousands of killings, innumerable acts of inhumanity and countless acts of ethnic cleansing."

"It is the inhumanity that leads to these charges," Nice said.

Prosecutors say they also have evidence to link Milosevic to the siege of Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, as well as to the notorious 1995 massacre of more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys in the U.N.-declared "safe area" of Srebrenica.

For his part, Milosevic acknowledged that "of course, war crimes existed on all three sides. But it was not policy, nor did that kind of atmosphere exist in a broad sense."

But his reference to the specific charges was brief. Allotted three hours to rebut the prosecution's statement, Milosevic opted to offer a sweeping perspective on recent Balkan history. He blamed outside powers--the United States, Germany and the Vatican, in particular--for conspiring to break up the Yugoslav federation and turn Serbia "into a Third World country."

Since the trial began in February, Milosevic has tried to portray himself and his people as victims of aggression. "Serbia and myself deserve recognition for working for peace in the area and not being a protagonist of war," he said Thursday.

The strategy is targeted at restoring his status among those watching back in Belgrade, the Yugoslav and Serbian capital, as a defender of Serbian interests, said Richard Dicker, an American who is monitoring the trial for Human Rights Watch. "His principal objective is to present a political offense, rather than put up a legal defense."

Not everyone is sure that is the wisest approach.

"The only defense that can work is the one where he shows he did what he could under the circumstances to stop the crimes," said Anthony D'Amato, a professor of law at Northwestern University in Chicago who was lead defense counsel for the war crimes trial of Milan Kovacevic, another defendant at The Hague.

Prosecutors will produce 177 witnesses to try to prove otherwise. They hope to finish their case by May, after which Milosevic will present his defense.

But concerns also have developed about Milosevic's health. He put on a feisty performance Thursday. But he has been diagnosed with heart problems, and the judges have slowed the pace of the trial in order not to tire him.

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