'Justice cheated' as Milosevic is found dead in his prison cell

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The Independent Online

Former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic was found dead in his cell yesterday, just months before his trial for genocide and war crimes in the Balkans wars in the 1990s was expected to end.

So the man known as "the Butcher of the Balkans" died in his bed and will receive a proper burial, two mundane privileges denied to victims of the ethnic cleansing he was accused of unleashing. He was 64.

Last night Milosevic's lawyer said he feared he was being poisoned, although he produced no evidence. He called for a post-mortem to be held in Moscow.

Milosevic had apparently been dead for hours when a guard found his body. It appears he died of natural causes. A full autopsy, toxicological examination and a full inquiry have been ordered and Milosevic's family has been informed. Milosevic was known to have been in poor health, suffering from high blood pressure.

His death comes less than a week after the star witness in his trial, former Croatian Serb leader Milan Babic, was found dead in the same prison. His testimony in 2002 described a political and military command structure headed by Milosevic in Belgrade that operated behind the scenes. Babic, who was serving a 13-year sentence, committed suicide.

As news of the death swept through the Balkans, Milosevic's supporters immediately blamedtribunal officials, accusing them of ignoring the signs of his poor health. "Milosevic did not die in The Hague, he was killed in The Hague," said Ivica Dacic, an official in Milosevic's Socialist Party. But in Croatia, President Stjepan Mesic's office said in a statement: "It's a pity Milosevic did not live through the trial and get his deserved sentence."

In Serbia-Montenegro, President Svetozar Marovic said that "with his death, history will be deprived of the full truth". In Kosovo, Veton Surroi, an ethnic Albanian leader who had testified against Milosevic in The Hague, said: "I wish he had lived 100 years and spent all those years in prison living with the memory of all the victims caused by his wars."

The man whose politics ruined the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in the former Yugoslavia arrived at the detention unit of the international war crimes tribunal in June 2001. His trial, on 66 charges of genocide and war crimes against non-Serbs, started in February 2002, but the defendant's conduct of his own defence, and health problems, meant hearings were postponed dozens of times and limited to three days a week. Only recently the court refused his demand to be transferred to Moscow for heart treatment. Milosevic's wife, Mira Markovic, lives there and the application was seen as an attempt at a family reunion.

Martyrdom in some quarters awaits, but former Balkans envoy and British foreign secretary Lord Owen spoke for many last night, when he said: "It's sad that justice in a way has been cheated."