Defiant in the dock, the self-proclaimed saviour of Serbia manages to divide the Balkans again

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It may have been the most excruciating 15 minutes of television Serbia has ever sat through. A nation watched yesterday as the man they once hailed as their saviour, who ruled every aspect of their lives for 13 years, stood a prisoner before the judges in a courtroom in a foreign country.

Ten minutes before the live broadcast was to begin, Aleksandra Mirosavic walked out of the room. "I can't watch it," she said. Her husband, Dragan, had to pull her back to the TV.

As the former president told the judge defiantly that he did not need a lawyer in a court he did not recognise, Mr Mirosavic punched the air. "Yes! That's right," he shouted.

Yet the Mirosavics vehemently opposed Mr Milosevic's rule from the start. Mr Mirosavic worked for an opposition radio station.

"It doesn't matter how much I hate Milosevic, he was still our president," said Ms Mirosavic. "Our people elected him and supported him for so long. It's embarrassing. That means that we are guilty too."

It was all very different from the reaction around the rest of the former Yugoslavia, where the victims of Mr Milosevic's decade of wars celebrated.

In Bosnia, Muslims who survived the genocide of 7,000 men and boys at the hands of Bosnian Serb forces in Srebrenica wept as they watched Mr Milosevic's court appearance. "We are looking for 10,700 of our dearest who died during the fall of Srebrenica in 1995," one woman said. "He should have been in The Hague a long time ago. There is no punishment great enough for him."

Survivors of the siege of Sarajevo said they would never be at peace until the Bosnian Serb leaders, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, stood in the same dock as Mr Milosevic. The chief UN war crimes prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, yesterday said she expected that an indictment for genocide would eventually be brought against Mr Milosevic for deeds committed during the Bosnian and Croatian conflicts. So far he is solely facing charges of crimes against humanity for the brutal campaign of Serb ethnic cleansing in which up to 10,000 Kosovars were murdered by Serbian security forces.

In Kosovo, Albanians cheered and shouted insults at TV screens as the man behind that campaign faced trial at last.

"I'm happy to see him in court," said Avni Zogiani, an Albanian from Pristina. "I think it's clear to him he can't escape responsibility. But he wants to go to the end in his own way: he will get a long sentence that way, but he will become a kind of hero for his people." In Belgrade's Usce park, where, in 1988, 300,000 Serbs came to scream their adoration for Mr Milosevic at an immense political rally that confirmed the power of a man who was about to unleash a decade of wars that would lead to the mass graves of Srebrenica and Kosovo, two sisters, Jasmina Petrovic and Snezana Manojlevic, sat arguing on a bench. Ms Petrovic said she couldn't bear to watch the court hearing on television. She had left her set on and turned her back so she could hear the sound without having to look at the screen.

"I'm glad he's there but I didn't want to watch it," she said. Ms Manojlevic disagreed with her. "He shouldn't be there," she said. "It's a really awful feeling. It's something I can't describe. He should have stood trial here." "I don't know what to think," said her sister bitterly. "What do you think about a man who robbed your country and your people. We experienced his power on our skins. Sometimes I think that Milosevic is guilty, sometimes not at all. In the end, he is guilty, but so is the West, and so are our people."

The reformists who ousted Mr Milosevic from power and handed him over to the tribunal said his decision not to recognise the court and make his first appearance there without any defence lawyers reflected how out of touch he is. "Milosevic is not aware of where he is. He still thinks he's a politician, instead of preparing a defence in a best possible way for the charges he is accused of," said Goran Vesic, a senior official in Serbia's ruling Democratic Party. "It's typical of him," said the Serbian Deputy Prime Minister, Nebojsa Covic.

The Serbian Prime Minister, Zoran Djindjic, was keen to wash his hands.

"He is now in the jurisdiction of the international judiciary and it is his affair how he behaves," he said.

But even some of Mr Milosevic's most diehard opponents in Serbia seemed to enjoy his defiance of the international court. "He stayed determined in his opinions," said a young student who gave his name only as Milan.

"He refused to enter a plea, and that's a humiliation for any court." Dragana Dirmenstajn sat in the shadow of a bombed-out building, unrepaired since the 1999 Nato air strikes – the moment when Mr Milosevic's decade of war finally reached the Serbian capital. She had been unable to watch the court hearing because she was at work. "I'll see it this evening," she said.

"But it will be hard because he is a part of us. It's like a family: you have a husband, wife and children. When the worst comes you don't ask the neighbour to solve the problem. You solve it between husband and wife." Others said they had not watched the court hearing. "I don't give a damn.

He's in the Hague, and that's his problem, not mine," said Marko Jevtic.

Among the elegant yellow awnings of Hram café, the favourite Belgrade meeting place of former members of the Tigers, the notorious paramilitaries led by the warlord Arkan, who left a trail of blood through Bosnia, nobody was willing to talk.

Boris Postovnic lived through the horrors of Kosovo. He was a field physician with the Serb army in the province during the 1999 air strikes.

He tells how he treated both Albanians and Serb soldiers sufering dreadful wounds. On the day the bombing ended, a 13-year-old Albanian girl was brought in with a bullet in her head – it had been fired in the air to celebrate the end of the war. The girl died in Mr Postovnic's arms.

"I'm not angry any more," said Mr Postovnic yesterday. "I used to be so angry with Milosevic. I felt betrayed. But the other day, I saw television pictures of him in prison, and I just felt sorry for him. I don't know why I felt sorry – he's just a helpless old man now. My wife is going to have a child, and I don't want to think about any of that past any more. The future is good."

Milosevic's defence

The following is an edited text of yesterday's arraignment hearing of Slobodan Milosevic before the UN War Crimes Tribunal.

Judge Richard May: This is the initial appearance of the accused in this case upon his transfer to the tribunal... Mr Milosevic, I see that you're not represented by counsel today. We understand that this is at your own choice. You do have the right, of course, to defend yourself. You also have a right to counsel and you should consider carefully whether it's in your own best interest not to be represented. These proceedings will be long and complex and you may wish to reconsider the position.

Milosevic (in English): I consider this tribunal [a] false tribunal, and indictments false indictments. It is illegal, being not appointed by UN General Assembly. So I have no need to appoint counsel to illegal organ.

May: Mr Milosevic, in due course you will have the chance to put in motions challenging the jurisdiction or any other preliminary matters which you wish to do... This initial appearance is simply to deal with these matters: first of all the indictment itself; and secondly, if you wish, to enter your pleas of guilty or not guilty to it.You have the right to have the indictment read out to you now, in court, before you plead to it. This is a right you may also waive. Now, do you want to have the indictment read out, or not?

Milosevic (in English): That's your problem.

May: Mr Milosevic, you are now before this tribunal and you're within the jurisdiction of it. You will be tried by the tribunal. You will be accorded the full rights of the accused, according to international law, and the full protections of international law and the statue.

Milosevic: Mr President...

May: The trial chamber will treat your response as a waiver of your right to have the indictment read out. The next part of the procedure is to move towards having that indictment put to you. Mr Milosevic, you may, if you wish, have time to consider your plea... Do you want to enter pleas today or are you asking for an adjournment to consider the matter further?

Milosevic (in Serbo-Croatian): This trial's aim is to produce false justification for the war crimes of Nato committed in Yugoslavia.

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

Milosevic: I have given you my answer. Furthermore, this so-called tribunal...

May: Mr Milosevic, we treat your response as a failure to enter a plea and we shall enter pleas of not guilty on each count on your behalf.


Milosevic: The aim of this tribunal is to justify the crimes committed in Yugoslavia. That is why this is a false tribunal, and illegitimate...

May: Mr Milosevic, this is not the time for speeches ... This matter is now adjourned.