Milosevic trial: 'This is an outrage against a whole nation, a whole people. Nato is crucifying me here'

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The Independent Online

Slobodan Milosevic seized his first chance to turn the tables on his accusers yesterday, mounting a blistering four-hour attack on Nato's bombing of Yugoslavia and claiming that the international community was "crucifying" him at a showtrial.

The former president of Yugoslavia faces 66 charges, including one of genocide, and could spend the rest of his life in prison if convicted at what has become the biggest war crimes trial since Nuremberg.

Yesterday was a chance to respond and, with the world's media watching, Mr Milosevic produced an extraordinary performance blending bombast with pathos, and rhetoric with the bare bones of a legal case.

Arriving just before 9am, and wearing his familiar striped tie in the national colours of Serbia, he unceremoniously set about launching a tirade at Nato. The argument was that Serbia was the victim of unprovoked aggression from the alliance which, along with Albanian "terrorists", provoked a mass exodus of refugees.

What was striking was the way his speech was delivered. Calm and composed, Mr Milosevic sat throughout, flanked by two burly UN guards. He had notes in front of him but he spoke with a fluency and directness that contrasted with the less confident performance of the prosecuting lawyer, Geoffrey Nice, on Wednesday.

Mr Milosevic would lean forward, look at the public gallery and fix the judges with a stare: the tricks of a practised orator. Only when agitated, and pointing vigorously as his voice rose, did he look like a tyrant who brought a decade of destruction to the Balkans.

The former Yugoslav president is the first head of state to be indicted and he rejects the court's right to try him, but he nevertheless sought to rebut aspects of the prosecutor's opening case.

The prosecutors had used videotape in their opening remarks, so Mr Milosevic responded with Western television footage picking holes in Nato's justifications for the attack on Yugoslavia.

Likewise, harrowing pictures of a victim of Serb ethnic cleansing presented by the prosecution were answered with equally gory image of hands, legs or heads severed by the impact of a Nato bomb.

It was a performance spoiled only by Mr Milosevic's inability to resist a boast.

First he crowed at Serbian success in downing an American stealth fighter bomber during the Nato air strikes on Yugoslavia in 1999. The plane had, Mr Milosevic said, cost $250m (about £170m) to build. "It was a wonder of technical achievement. They said no one could shoot it down. We shot it down. Didn't the man who shot it down deserve a decoration? He deserved 50 decorations."

Then, disputing the prosecution's interpretation of a speech to mark the 600th anniversary of the battle of Kosovo, Mr Milosevic told the judges ­ entirely without irony ­ that this was "a good speech, a very excellent speech: I don't think that you could find any criticism of that speech".

The first 45 minutes of the hearing were taken up with video footage, including a German documentary that cast doubt on the 1999 massacre of about 45 ethnic Albanians by Serb forces in the Kosovan village of Racak ­ an incident that helped trigger the Nato campaign. Then it was down to the serious business of denouncing the court. The contradictions highlighted by the footage were "just an atom ­ even smaller than an atom ­ of truth in the ocean of lies". Nato wanted "to ascribe responsibility and accountability for everything they did and the crime they perpetrated themselves".

Mr Milosevic wavered between disdain for "this regrettable opus" of the prosecution, and indignation. The thrust was that this was a political trial with the whole Serbian nation in the dock. "This is an outrage against a whole people, against a whole nation," he said, adding that the Nato allies were engaged in "the killing of Yugoslavia and crucifying me here".

Moreover, it was David against Goliath. On the one hand, Mr Milosevic said, stood the tribunal with its huge resources; on the other, himself, with just "a public telephone booth in the prison". He added: "You want to engage in a 100-metre swimming competition but you want to tie my hands and feet and compete that way."

There was disdain for his "persecutors": the former Nato spokesman Jamie Shea "takes the grand prix prize for lies".

Mixed in with these words were efforts to answer some charges. The prosecution argues that Mr Milosevic bares "command responsibility" for atrocities because he, at the least, did nothing to stop them.

Yesterday, the former Yugoslav president said that he had questioned Bosnian-Serb authorities over the shelling of Sarajevo and that he had been assured some of the "concentration camps" in which non-Serbs were held were simply holding centres. He also portrayed himself as the defender of an ethnically harmonious Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.

Then came the final tour de force, a presentation on the destruction wreaked by Nato in 78 days of bombing. Mr Milosevic donned the mantle of a forensic lawyer, using reading glasses as he recited, largely deadpan, lists of the dead, and instructed court officials to show a series of grisly pictures, including that of a severed head.

The court was reminded of the bombing of a refugee convoy in Djakovica and the destruction of a bridge while a train was travelling across, events that provoked deep soul-searching in the West during the Nato bombing.

For another hour, Mr Milosevic continued, showing slides of schools, hospitals and factories blown up by Nato bombs, of bloodied corpses of young girls, until the proceedings were adjourned.

Outside the court, Richard Dicker, the director of the international justice programme for Human Rights Watch, acknowledged that Mr Milosevic had made an impact. "The photos were chilling, they reflected an unacceptable collateral damage," he said. "But the larger question is what set all that in motion, what triggered the bombing?" From Mr Milosevic, a powerful performance then, but hardly one which proved his innocence.

Television ratings in Serbia have shot up with viewers glued to their sets for the trial of their ousted leader.

Across Belgrade, office workers, bureaucrats, customers in bars and even police officers gathered around television sets to watch Mr Milosevic accuse the West of plotting his downfall.

They would have been familiar with the distinctive red, white and blue striped tie their former leader favours. His choice of neckware is well recognised in Belgrade where people were used to seeing him with it on important occasions. He wore the tie during his televised self-proclaimed declaration of victory over Nato during the 1998 bombing.

Many noticed that the "lucky" tie was missing on the first day of the trial when he was denied the opportunity to speak while the prosecution was outlining its case. That day he opted for green and dark blue.