Milosevic fury after defence lawyers are imposed by tribunal

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The Independent Online

Judges in The Hague imposed defence counsel on the former Yugoslav president, Slobodan Milosevic, yesterday in a decision which could mark a turning point in his war crimes trial.

Judges in The Hague imposed defence counsel on the former Yugoslav president, Slobodan Milosevic, yesterday in a decision which could mark a turning point in his war crimes trial.

Two British lawyers were asked to represent Mr Milosevic, who denounced the ruling as a "scandal" and an abuse of his rights.

For 30 months he has insisted on conducting his own defence against charges arising from the conflict in the Balkans in the 1990s, including one count of genocide in Bosnia. But the defendant's periodic heart problems, high blood pressure and bouts of flu have repeatedly delayed the case, which began in February 2002.

The judges have gradually lost patience with the interruptions to the trial, which is not likely to conclude much before the end of 2005. But yesterday's decision went beyond the compromise expected by many observers under which a defence lawyer might remain on standby to step in if Mr Milosevic were too ill to attend court.

Instead the judges have stripped the former Yugoslav president of the right to conduct his own defence, which marks a fundamental change to the character of the trial. Legal experts were unclear yesterday on the role Mr Milosevic would be able to play in his own defence.

Judge Patrick Robinson said the 63-year-old defendant was "not fit enough to defend himself" because he was at risk of a potentially life-threatening "hypertensive emergency".

"Based on the medical reports, there is a real danger that this trial might either last for an unreasonably long time or worse yet might not be concluded should the accused continue to represent himself without the assistance of counsel," the judge added.

According to the judges, Mr Milosevic's poor health has interrupted the prosecution's case more than a dozen times, and the start to his defence has been delayed five times.

Mr Milosevic responded: "I believe that that is a scandal. You cannot deny me the right to defend myself."

In a statement the three judges overseeing the case said that it was open to Mr Milosevic to nominate his own defence lawyer, but there was no suggestion that he would be allowed to resume the presentation of his case.

While the imposition of defence counsel will ensure that the case should proceed to its timetable, it raises a host of problems.

Mr Milosevic is certain to claim that the decision is a fundamental breach of his right to freedom of speech and that it undermines the credibility of the trial. He is also unlikely to recognise the two lawyers likely to defend him, Steven Kay and Gillian Higgins. They have served as amici curiae, whose job is to help ensure a fair trial.

Earlier this week, Zdenko Tomanovic, one of Mr Milosevic's informal legal advisers, said that were defence counsel imposed, the former Yugoslav president would not co-operate with them.

The judges have yet to explain how the procedures will work in practice.

This week Mr Milosevic finally launched his own defence with a bombastic performance that sought to turn the tables on his accusers, but ignored the substance of the allegations against him.

Yesterday Judge Robinson said Mr Milosevic appeared to have contributed to his own health problems by failing to follow doctors' treatment advice. On Wednesday Mr Milosevic denied that he had used his health problems to manipulate the course of the trial.

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