Milosevic goes on offensive at his 'Inquisition' in the Hague

War crimes trial » Yes, there was genocide – by Nato – claims former Yugoslav president
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The Independent Online

One hour after Slobodan Milosevic finished his latest, excoriating court onslaught against Nato, Vladimir Krsljanin was smiling. "We have a saying in Serbia which I think translates into other languages," said the Milosevic ally and Serbian socialist party member. "Attack is the best form of defence."

It might be 37 years since Mr Milosevic graduated from Belgrade University with a law degree, but in a two-day tirade last week he turned the biggest war crimes trial since Nuremberg on its head.

Permitted, at last, to address the court without interruption, the former Yugoslav president accused Nato of conspiring with Albanian terrorists, of driving ethnic Albanian Kosovars from their homes and of committing genocide on the Serbian people. Genocide is one of the 66 war crimes counts with which Mr Milosevic himself is charged.

Jaw jutting, fingers pointing as his voice rose in anger, it was sometimes difficult to see Mr Milosevic as a victim of a decade of violence in the Balkans. Yet that was how he presented himself in a masterful piece of political theatre.

The court wanted, he said in one of dozens of pieces of memorable invective, "to engage in a 100m swimming competition but you want to tie my hands and feet and compete that way". Not only did he dominate the headlines and the news bulletins (his supporters claimed that the streets of Belgrade were empty when the ex-president was broadcast live), he sometimes seemed to control the trial.

Thanks to a lifetime in politics, Mr Milosevic is well versed in the tricks of courtroom provocation. As the court viewed photographs of burnt and mutilated bodies of children killed during Nato air raids, he looked directly at the bench where the prosecuting lawyers sat. "The prosecutor is probably bored. I can see him yawning," he said sardonically.

The ex-president and Richard May, the presiding judge, regularly lock horns and, throughout pre-trial hearings, Judge May had unceremoniously turned off Mr Milosevic's microphone. Now the former Yugoslav president sought to turn this to his advantage as evidence that the "victim" is being lynched by a latter-day "Inquisition".

So he carried on goading the judge. Looking in his direction Mr Milosevic referred to his "bosses" who were orchestrating the trial, or offered him a "present" – a book listing 107 Serbian Orthodox churches which had been destroyed while Kosovo was under Nato and UN control. Once he even pre-empted the judge by announcing the time at which the afternoon session would start. "If it is time to stop we can stop," Mr Milosevic said at the lunch break on Friday. "I suppose we will continue in one and a half hours."

Complaining at the restrictions on his right to speak (he had already been talking for eight hours), Mr Milosevic won two concessions over his allotted time and will now carry on with his defence until Monday lunchtime, around 10 hours in all and more than the prosecution.

By confronting the judge on the second day, Mr Milosevic hijacked the headlines, distracting attention from the prosecutors' descriptions of atrocities in Bosnia and Kosovo. One court official conceded that the opening days of the trial went "like a dream" for Mr Milosevic.

Given their success in setting the media agenda, the former president's men are pleased. Yugoslav lawyer Dragoslav Ognjanovic says Mr Milosevic is "going to use the court to fight for the truth in front of world public opinion". But will it make any difference? For those willing to sit through the hours of speechifying, Mr Milosevic regularly gives himself away. Bombastic and unable to resist the odd boast, he is also prone to wild conspiracy theories. His explanation for the beginning of violence in Kosovo, for example, is that Klaus Kinkel, the former German foreign minister, used his intelligence services to round up "criminals from across Europe" who were "pushed into Kosovo to start killing. It was then that terrorist activities exploded". Enough said.

There has, so far, been only a vague attempt to rebut the allegations. Mr Milosevic has disputed some of the claims that he has "command responsibility" for war crimes, arguing that, in several cases, he either inquired about atrocities or issued orders that they should be avoided.

But, within the confines of a trial the authority of which he does not accept, the ex-president is not contesting the charges, concentrating instead on Nato's "war crimes" in Kosovo. Because Mr Milosevic refused to appoint defence lawyers, the judges have appointed neutral lawyersto try to ensure a fair trial. They have been asked to make submissions "as to the relevance, if any, in this trial of the Nato air campaign in Kosovo".

Yet, without a more comprehensive rebuttal of the specific accusations against Mr Milosevic, the unlikely prospect of an acquittal looks more implausible. Richard Dicker of Human Rights Watch argues that the trial "has to be about legal issues". "The court's decisions have to be made whatever the public perception," he said.

That is fine in a legal sense, but court officials are also aware that justice must be seen to be done, to TV viewers in Yugoslavia as well as legal experts in the public gallery at The Hague. That presents dilemmas of which the allocation of time was just one example. Do the judges now allow Bill Clinton and other world leaders to be summoned and held to account for the Nato campaign? Each time he is denied, more claims will be made that Mr Milosevic is the victim, that this is a show trial. A few days into a two-year trial, there is no reason to suppose that he intends to abandon his lifetime motto: attack is the best form of defence.