Judge in Milosevic war crimes trial quits

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The Independent Online

The judge who has presided for two years over the trial of Slobodan Milosevic, the former Yugoslav president, stepped down yesterday on health grounds, days before the hearing was to finish.

The eventual verdict will be delivered by the panel of judges, rather than by a jury, so yesterday's decision by Richard May to resign is a significant blow to the credibility of the proceedings. The trial has already suffered a series of breaks because of the ill health of the defendant.

Jim Landale, a spokesman for the tribunal said: "It is only natural that the resignation of the presiding judge does disrupt the trial to some extent. It will be up to the trial chamber to decide how to proceed, but its president has said he is confident the secretary general [of the United Nations] will appoint a new trial judge shortly."

The former Yugoslav and Serb president is conducting his own defence against charges that he committed crimes against humanity, genocide and war crimes in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo in the 1990s.

In a separate case, Mr Milosevic and nine others go on trial today accused of the murder of Ivan Stambolic, a former Serbian president. The indictment, the first major one served by Serbia on its former leader, accuses the former Yugoslav president of masterminding and ordering the killing of Mr Stambolic.

The trial at the Special Court for Organised Crime in Belgrade will open without the presence of Mr Milosevic. Another main defendant who will be absent is Milorad Lukovic "Legija", a notorious former commander of Mr Milosevic's Special Operations Units (JSO). He is on the run.

Mr Stambolic was abducted while jogging in a Belgrade park in August 2000 by four members of the JSO. At the time, Mr Milosevic was facing crucial elections the following month and feared Mr Stambolic could be a significant opponent in the polls. Mr Stambolic's body was not found until March, 2003, during an investigation into the assassination that year of Zoran Djindjic, the reformist Serbian Prime Minister.

In the operation code - named Sabre that followed the killing of Mr Djindjic, a many JSO members were arrested, including some who revealed the gruesome secret of Mr Stambolic's death. They led the investigators to the spot on Fruska Gora mountain, some 80 kilometres north of Belgrade, where they had killed Mr Stambolic with two bullets to the back of his head. His remains were in a shallow, lime-covered grave.

The investigation centred on Mr Lukovic who was accused of being part of the so-called "Zemun Clan" of gangsters who allegedly masterminded the assassination of Mr Djindjic.

Another defendant in court today is Radomr Markovic, a secret police chief in the Milosevic era accused of organising the killing of Mr Stambolic. The indictment also accuses Mr Milosevic of orchestrating an assasination attempt on Vuk Draskovic, the veteran opposition leader, in June, 2000. A sniper opened fire on him at his home in Montenegro but missed. Mr Draskovic led one of the biggest parties that opposed Mr Milosevic's rule, the Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO) and was regarded by Mr Milosevic as another significant opponent in the September elections, which Mr Milosevic lost, and he was ousted in October.

Today's trial has led to the postponement of the trial against the group that allegedly helped assassinate Mr Djindjic. The case opened last December, but was postponed until 8 March because the accused in the two trials share the same lawyers.