Milosevic heart attack risk puts war crimes trial in jeopardy

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The future of the biggest war crimes trial since the Second World War was thrown into doubt yesterday as ill health prevented Slobodan Milosevic, the former Yugoslav president, from taking the stand - prompting suggestions that the case might have to be abandoned.

The future of the biggest war crimes trial since the Second World War was thrown into doubt yesterday as ill health prevented Slobodan Milosevic, the former Yugoslav president, from taking the stand - prompting suggestions that the case might have to be abandoned.

Judges at the UN tribunal in The Hague will decide today how to proceed, after one lawyer questioned the fitness of Mr Milosevic - who is said to be at risk of a heart attack - to stand trial.

One possibility is the imposition of a defence counsel on the former Yugoslav president who is conducting his own case; another is the installation of a video link to Mr Milosevic's cell to avoid the need for him to appear in court.

At present the trial judges are not thought to be considering bringing the trial to a close. But the idea of imposing a defence attorney is problematic since it is certain to be rejected by Mr Milosevic, who has repeatedly declined earlier offers. "The lawyer is out of the question," Mr Milosevic said yesterday. "I would never accept that".

Yesterday's development is yet another delay in the seemingly interminable case. The hearing, intended as the start of Mr Milosevic's defence, turned into a discussion of his health.

Steven Kay, a lawyer appointed as an honest broker to try to help achieve a fair trial, said: "His health has been gradually declining," adding: "it may well be that the court is at a stage now of having to consider that as a distinct issue on this trial as to his very fitness to stand trial at all." Mr Kay stressed that the tribunal had imposed a counsel on Vojislav Seselj, a Serb nationalist who also faces war crimes charges, but questioned how the trial could proceed if Mr Milosevic refused to co-operate, as Seselj has done. The prosecution favours the imposition of a defence lawyer.

The defendant's regular episodes of high blood pressure, flu and exhaustion have steadily worsened since proceedings began in February 2002. Mr Milosevic, 62, faces 66 charges of war crimes in former Yugoslavia, including genocide in Bosnia and crimes against humanity in Croatia and Kosovo.

Having devoted two years of court time to the trial, the UN tribunal is determined to speed up proceedings. Judge Patrick Robinson said: "The time has come for a radical review of the trial process and the continuation of the trial in the light of the health problems of the accused".

Referring to a cardiologist's report, he added: "The patient is known to have essential hypertension with organ damage in the form of hypertrophy of the left ventricle. He is undergoing extensive medical treatment. It is therefore necessary to navigate constantly between sufficient rest, optimum medication and the stress of the trial."

Looking tired but otherwise healthy, Mr Milosevic, dressed in a navy suit and red tie, accused the tribunal of putting his health in jeopardy by making him appear. Calling it a "classic example of maltreatment of prisoners", he said: "This kind of decision-making is something we only know from the Inquisition in the Middle Ages."

Mr Milosevic wants to call former US president Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, along with 1,400 other witnesses in the 150 working days he has for his defence. One of his legal advisers, Zdenko Tomanovic, said he expected the court to postpone the trial until late August. Mr Milosevic would never accept a defence lawyer and imposing one could delay the case even further as the lawyer would have to research the case, he said.

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