Milosevic scorns war crimes court

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The Independent Online

Slobodan Milosevic, the first former head of state to face charges at the United Nations war crimes tribunal, made a defiant first appearance before judges in The Hague yesterday, refusing to recognise what he denounced as the "illegal" court of his Nato enemies.

The face-to-face confrontation with the judges appointed to try him for crimes against humanity lasted only 12 minutes. But those hoping to witness a moment of history-making theatre were not disappointed.

The familiar stocky, grey-haired figure was in the dock like a common criminal. His compatriots would have recognised the tie, striped in the red, blue and white of the flag of Serbia. He wore the same tie in 1999 when as President of Yugoslavia he made his "declaration of victory" over Nato speech to the Serb people.

Rarely has a defendant been less intimidated by his surroundings or made such a brazen attempt to turn the tables. He appeared without a lawyer, repeatedly refused to recognise the legitimacy of the court and stonewalled procedural questions, forcing the presiding judge to enter a not guilty plea on his behalf.

At 7.30am a convoy of three cars had swept out of the prison at Scheveningen to head for The Hague, the accused in the back of a black BMW.

One and a half hours later, just before 10am, came the moment which, not so long ago, seemed unimaginable. Dressed in a dark blue suit, light blue shirt, shiny black shoes and the symbolic tie, the former Yugoslav president filed into the court room flanked by two armed UN guards.

Even his first step marked this out as an appearance different from other, more nervous, war crimes suspects who have trodden the same path. Mr Milosevic almost swaggered into court number one, his gait marked by the arrogance of a demagogue well accustomed to exploiting the public stage. Initially he shifted nervously in a swivel chair as he waited for the judges but then showing his first signs of sullen defiance, had to be told by the guards to rise when they entered the room.

Mr Milosevic declined the headphones offering translation into Serbian and peered through the bulletproof glass, surveying the packed public gallery with steely eyes. Then the verbal jousting began.

In patient, understated tones, the British judge, Richard May, noted the lack of a defence lawyer and told the former president he might be well advised to get one. "If you wish to have time to consider whether to have counsel or not we would be prepared to give it to you," he said.

The former Yugoslav president seized his first opportunity to speak, his unease making way for signs of aggression as he placed his fist on the table. "I consider this tribunal to be a false tribunal," he said in English, "and this indictment a false indictment. It is illegal not being appointed by the UN General Assembly so I have no need to appoint a counsel to an illegal organ." Mr Milosevic may be on weak ground here, having acknowledged the authority of The Hague tribunal when, as President of Serbia, he signed the 1995 Dayton accords ending the war in Bosnia.

But Judge May kept things low key and asked Mr Milosevic if he wanted to hear the charges against him, including a litany of murders and forced deportations from Kosovo. "This is a right you may also waive," the judge added. "Do you want to have the indictment read out or not?"

"That's your problem," drawled the ex-president, his chin cupped in his hands in a look of contempt. The blunt one-liner delivered in English with a slight hint of an American accent brought a ripple of laughter from the public gallery.

In time the prosecution will lay out gruesome evidence of murders and atrocities committed by Serb forces in Kosovo but yesterday the judge stuck to procedural matters with clinical efficiency, silencing Mr Milosevic's attempt to make political statements by disconnecting his microphone.

Not for the first time in his life, Mr Milosevic took full advantage. Asked to enter a plea, he was on the offensive again, this time speaking in Serbian: "This trial's aim is to produce false justification for war crimes of Nato committed in Yugoslavia."

When Judge May repeated the question, a similarly dismissive answer led to Mr Milosevic's microphone being cut off and the judge ruled the response "a failure to plea", which, under the regulations, is considered to be a claim of innocence. A final attempt by Mr Milosevic to dispute the validity of the tribunal produced a final rebuke from the judge: "Mr Milosevic, this is not the time for speeches."

With that the case was adjourned until 27 August and, unusually, the blinds were drawn before the defendant was led out. The television monitors remained on, however, and showed the ex-president looking at his watch and pronouncing "10 minutes" to the guards. In fact the proceedings had taken 12 minutes – perversely for a war crimes prosecution, all of it box office.

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