Sir Richard May

'Star judge' of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia
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Richard George May, judge: born London 12 November 1938; called to the Bar, Inner Temple 1965, Bencher 2001; Recorder, Midland and Oxford Circuit 1985-87, Circuit Judge 1987-97; Judge, International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia 1997-2004; Kt 2004; married 1974 Radmila Barnicot (one son, two daughters); died Oxford 1 July 2004.

When Richard May transferred from the Midland and Oxford Circuit to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in 1997, few would have expected that one day he would become the tribunal's - and perhaps the world's - best-known judge. That it happened that way was due entirely to May's appointment as the presiding judge in Europe's "trial of the century": that of Slobodan Milosevic, the ex-President of Yugoslavia, who in 2002 became the first former head of state to go on trial before an international court.

May handled the trial with consummate skill. He faced two major problems: the huge complexity of a case involving three wars in the former Yugoslavia over a period of a decade; and Milosevic's frequent attempts to turn the trial chamber into a political platform from which he could rally his supporters in Serbia and denounce Western leaders.

Although on occasion May showed signs of frustration with Milosevic's behaviour, he remained unflappable, courteous but firm. When Milosevic failed to heed repeated warnings that his pronouncements were irrelevant to the case against him, May would silence him by turning off his microphone. The old-fashioned gavel on his desk was never used.

Their legal duel continued for two years. May's was by far the most difficult job any of the ICTY's 16 judges had to grapple with. The stress involved in keeping the proceedings on track while ensuring Milosevic had a fair trial was enormous. With the prosecution's case completed in February this year, May resigned from the ICTY on grounds of ill-health.

Apart from taking on the role of the ICTY's "star judge", May also played a crucial part behind the scenes as the Chairman of the tribunal's Rules Committee. With the ICTY producing much of the precedent for international criminal justice, May was instrumental in framing the judicial infrastructure and rules of conduct that will form the foundations for other supra-national tribunals, including the United Nations' permanent International Criminal Court.

Born in 1938 and educated at Haileybury School and in Cambridge, where he read Law at Selwyn College, May left National Service with the rank of a 2nd Lieutenant. He was called to the Bar at the Inner Temple in 1965, and practised as a barrister for the next two decades.

For a while May entertained political ambitions. He twice stood for Parliament as a Labour candidate. On the second occasion, in 1979, he contested Finchley against the sitting MP, Margaret Thatcher, in the elections that swept her to power. For much of the 1970s, May was a Labour councillor on Westminster Council, and served as the leader of the opposition, 1974-77. He campaigned relentlessly for a variety of causes, ranging from affordable housing in central London to establishing a centre for homeless young people.

May became a Recorder on the Midland and Oxford Circuit in 1985; two years later he was appointed a Circuit Judge there, and gained considerable experience in criminal law cases over the next 10 years. But he had no background in international law, and it came as a surprise to him when in 1997 he was picked to join the ICTY.

May turned out to be an inspired choice. For one thing, in its early phase the ICTY's panel of judges had many academic experts, but few with hands-on experience in the courts. Besides, May's steady, purposeful, no-nonsense approach was much valued. He presided over several high-profile cases, including that of Dario Kordic, one of the top Bosnian Croat politicians during the conflict in Bosnia. In 2003, May pronounced the 11-year sentence on Biljana Plavsic, one of the two deputies to Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serbs' wartime leader and a long-term fugitive from justice. Known in the 1990s as the "Iron Lady of the Balkans", Plavsic is the most senior political figure to have admitted her guilt.

In spite of his experience, nothing could have prepared May for the challenges of the Milosevic trial. Starting with the pre-trial hearings, Milosevic refused to recognise the ICTY's jurisdiction, failed to plead to the 66 charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide contained in his three indictments, and turned down offers to be given legal representation. Instead, he chose to represent himself - a masterstroke that ensured he would take centre-stage in the trial because even during the prosecution's presentation of its case, Milosevic was constantly in the limelight, cross- examining the witnesses.

May's main concern was to keep the trial going as smoothly as possible in the face of Milosevic's repeated moves to sidetrack it and address his supporters in Serbia and elsewhere. "We are not impressed by your political points," May told the accused on one occasion. "You have made them a great many times. They do not improve with repetition."

May did his best to impose control on the proceedings, and he ensured that Milosevic did not succeed in diverting the court's attention from the charges he was facing. He used a combination of persistence, strong discipline, a wry sense of humour and, when required, the ultimate sanction of switching Milosevic's microphone off, in a largely successful effort to keep the trial on track. It was these qualities that earned him the characterisation that he was made of "reinforced platinum".

While he was firm with Milosevic, May also gave the accused considerable leeway to participate in the trial. It would have been very damaging for the ICTY if Milosevic had followed up his refusal to recognise it by not taking part in the proceedings. Instead, Milosevic made the most of his opportunity; and under May's guidance, he was repeatedly turned away from political speech-making to engage in legal issues and the cross-examination of witnesses.

When Milosevic overstepped the acceptable boundaries of cross-examination by badgering the witnesses, May stopped him in his tracks. May's compassion for the victims and their relatives provided them with a helpful and supportive environment within an adversarial judicial process. In several cases it was his warm, even gentle, approach towards the victims that made it possible for them finish their witness testimonies.

Milosevic's political showmanship was only one of the difficulties May had to contend with. A trial that brought together three separate indictments relating to the wars in Kosovo, Bosnia and Croatia produced a mountain of detailed testimony from 300 witnesses as well as complex legal arguments. With great foresight, May had initially ruled that each of the three indictments should be tried separately. But he was subsequently overruled by the Appeals Chamber. The result was a marathon trial.

Milosevic's frequent bouts of illness led to further lengthy delays. Even though May repeatedly imposed time limits and deadlines, it took the prosecution two years to complete its case. A further four months later, Milosevic's defence is only about to begin.

May's health suffered, and he retired from the ICTY after the prosecution rested its case. His personal achievement was to have steered the trial that far; and in the process to have demonstrated that even the highest officials would have to answer allegations of war crimes before an impartial tribunal. It fitted in with his belief that where no adequate national jurisdiction existed, an international court was an appropriate and viable form of meting out justice.

Gabriel Partos