Milosevic goes on trial at The Hague

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The Independent Online

Slobodan Milosevic finally faced international justice yesterday when prosecutors at the biggest war crimes trial since Nuremberg accused him of orchestrating acts "of an almost medieval savagery" that cost tens of thousands of lives in the former Yugoslavia.

Nine months after he was flown to The Hague, Mr Milosevic sat impassively for more than four hours while the prosecution gave an account of his political rise and chronicled the catalogue of murders, rapes and forced expulsion that convulsed the Balkans. But sometimes there was a smile from the man who once brought fear to thousands – most revealingly while he watched footage of himself. The court monitors showed a younger, less jowly, Mr Milosevic in April 1987 addressing Kosovo Serbs who had been demonstrating about sectarian attacks, and telling them: "You will not be beaten again."

As the video was played to the court, the 60-year-old former Yugoslav president looked on with ill-disguised curiosity, sitting back when it ended and raising his eyebrows with apparent satisfaction and a brief smile. Laughter rippled through the public gallery.

By and large, however, yesterday was hardly a day for levity. Opening the most important case in the history of the United Nations tribunal, its chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, said the hearing would "make history and we would do well to approach our task in the light of history".

The ethnic cleansing unleashed by Mr Milosevic "revealed an almost medieval savagery and a calculated cruelty that went far beyond the bounds of legitimate warfare," she said, adding that the job of the court was to try those "responsible for the worst crimes known to humankind".

The prosecution described in detail the links between Mr Milosevic and those who committed atrocities. The court heard an intercepted telephone conversation between Mr Milosevic and the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, in May 1991 about the provision of weapons.

The prosecutor also put the case into a historical context, of a co-ordinated attempt to whip up nationalist sentiment to help build a greater Serbia.

Mr Milosevic – who is the first former head of state to be tried by an international tribunal for war crimes – remained calm and controlled as he sat, flanked by two burly UN guards, in court number one. Without addressing a word to the court he still exerted a powerful presence.

Arriving in court at 9.27am he was dressed in a smart navy suit, blue shirt and striped tie, though not the one habitually worn for his most important appearances when in office. From behind the bullet-proof glass Mr Milosevic gave the public gallery a brief smile before assuming his more familiar, stern stare.

He faces 66 specific charges, including one of genocide, contained in three indictments – one each for the wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. Conviction is likely to mean life in prison but Mr Milosevic rejects the authority of the court and has refused to appoint a defence counsel for the trial, which is expected to last about two years. The deputy prosecutor, Geoffrey Nice, highlighted several examples to illustrate the terror that gripped the former Yugoslavia and provided a thread that linked the three indictments being heard together in a single trial. One incident, in Bosnia in 1992, led to a mother and her baby being burnt to death; another, seven years later and in Kosovo, culminated in a 20-year-old woman being thrown down a well.

The task of the prosecution is to tie such atrocities to Mr Milosevic, a man who rarely left a paper trail behind him.

The prosecutor's case, which is expected to last 18 months, in essence boils down to three main elements.

First, that atrocities were committed on an extraordinary and horrific scale in the former Yugoslavia. Among those highlighted were the siege of Vukovar, and the shelling of Dubrovnik in Croatia in 1991. As Ms Del Ponte put it more generally: "These crimes touch every one of us, wherever we live, because they offend against our deepest principles of human rights and human dignity."

Second, that this was part of a long-term strategy devised by Mr Milosevic to create a greater Serbia or to exploit Serb nationalism to bolster his personal power. Mr Nice said the "evidence will show that the accused had a central role in the joint criminal enterprise", the creation of a greater Serbia. "He had a fundamental role in planning, organisation, financing support and execution of the plan."

Finally, the prosecution will seek to prove "command responsibility". Yesterday prosecutors referred to a range of documents, outlining the connections between Mr Milosevic and the men who terrorised civilians. Complex diagrams illustrated the chain of command within Serbia and the links with Bosnian Serb paramilitaries, the support offered by Belgrade with weapons or training, and the contacts with warlords such as the notorious Arkan. As Mr Nice put it: "Did he [Mr Milosevic] know what was happening? Of course he did."

In Belgrade five of the 15 Serb television stations screened the hearing but, without any contribution from Mr Milosevic himself, the level of interest was low. Mr Milosevic's wife, Mira Markovic, watched at home, restrained from attending by visa restrictions.

For the first time, Mr Milosevic exchanged words with one of three neutral lawyers who have been hired to help ensure a fair trial. Otherwise he left the tribunal and returned to his prison cell without breaking his silence. He will not be quiet for long. Mr Milosevic will be allowed to respond, either today or tomorrow morning, and officials predict that he will speak for more than four hours.

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