Belgrade begins show trial of Nato 'war criminals'

A portrait of President Slobodan Milosevic hangs in court as charges are levelled against absent Blair and Clinton
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The Independent Online

The "Alice in Wonderland" trial in absentia of 14 Western leaders - including Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and Jacques Chirac - opened in Belgrade yesterday. The leaders stand accused of war crimes against Yugoslavia carried out during the 11-week Nato bombing campaign last year.

The "Alice in Wonderland" trial in absentia of 14 Western leaders - including Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and Jacques Chirac - opened in Belgrade yesterday. The leaders stand accused of war crimes against Yugoslavia carried out during the 11-week Nato bombing campaign last year.

It took the Belgrade district prosecutor Andrija Milutinovic more than three hours to read out the charges to the court, including the exact locations of Nato air strikes and the names of every victim.

The leaders are accused of instigating an aggressive war against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia [FRY], war crimes against civilians, using prohibited weapons, attempting tomurder the Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and violating the territorial sovereignty of the FRY. The indictment named 503 civilians, 240 Yugoslav army members and 147 Serb policemen killed in Nato raids.

The names of the 14 leaders were attached to 14 empty seats in the front row facing the five-member council of judges.

A portrait of Mr Milosevic hung on the wall overlooking proceedings, as if to underline the gravity with which the Belgrade regime views the trial, which comes just days before parliamentary and presidential elections.

The government is presenting the poll on Sunday as "a referendum on Nato", with sympathisers of Mr Milosevic being described as "patriots" and the opposition and its supporters branded "traitors paid by Nato".

Belgrade's Palace of Justice was renovated for the trial with a new pink carpet and fresh paintwork. Security was tight, as the trial was attended by the Serb Minister of Justice, Dragoljub Jankovic, as well as diplomats from Burma, China, Cuba, Iraq, Russia and several African countries. The public gallery was filled with senior members of Mr Milosevic's Socialist Party and members of the party's youth branches.

Each of the 14 "defendants" had been appointed defence lawyers by the court. Vojo Beslac, who is defending the British Prime Minister, said he was presented with a 200-page indictment on 7 September.

He declined to comment on the grounds of his defence. "It's too early to say," he told The Independent. He added that he notified Mr Blair about the case "through a letter", but "received no answer".

According to the presiding judge, Verolj Raketic, there was no need for any witnesses or families of victims to attend the trial, as the accumulated evidence of 29 district courts and the military prosecutors' office was "thorough".

"We would need an unfeasibly large courtroom for all of them to attend the trial. All the citizens of Serbia and the FRY could have been invited here," Judge Raketic said. The indictment was sent to the accused via diplomatic channels, he added.

Six hours of video-taped evidence of Nato "crimes" will be presented this week.

According to the indictment, Nato used 600 cruise missiles in the campaign of 25,119 sorties. The material damage inflicted upon the FRY was described as "enormous".

The court heard from the district prosecutor that Nato air strikes were launched in March last year as a result of an "unacceptable ultimatum" presented to Yugoslavia. He quoted "political, economical and military reasons" for Nato's decision, as well as the alliance's intention to help "terrorists in Kosovo" in their effort to destroy the FRY.

Citizens in the West were made to believe the air raids were a noble cause, aimed at preventing a humanitarian catastrophe among ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, he added.

The decision was "contrary to the United Nations' charter... an act of aggression... breaching the 1949 Geneva Convention and adjoining protocol on warfare; [it was] premeditated murder of civilians and soldiers, premeditated destruction of property, villages and towns", Mr Milutinovic told the court.

Two relatives of victims managed to enter the courtroom. Beba Stojmenovska and Zanka Stojanovic, mothers of two technicians killed during the bombing of the headquarters of Radio Television of Serbia, said the trial was a farce.

"Nato deserves to go on trial but the same should be done to those who made targets of us and our children," Mrs Stojanovic said. "This here - it's a travesty of justice." Mrs Stojmenovska said: "It's all because of the elections. The regime sees the elections as a 'referendum' against Nato. But the elections mean life or death for people here.

"Normal life in a normal country or a slow death in the ruined country we have. This is not about justice."

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