Leading article: A death that cheats justice and Serbia's democracy

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Lingering questions about how the former president died, whether he committed suicide or might even have been poisoned, will feed a sense of victimhood among all too many Serbs. Uncertainty will also bolster the Serbs' erroneous conviction that they were the real victims of the wars of the Nineties, and of the Hague Tribunal, and that - as some in Belgrade were quick to point out yesterday - "Serbs are dying in The Hague".

So there is not much comfort for the relatives of the 100,000 or so dead in the war in Bosnia, or of the thousands killed in Kosovo and Croatia, who recall Milosevic as the supreme architect of Serbia's expansionist wars in the Nineties. They expected at the very least the satisfaction of seeing him pronounced guilty.

There is not much comfort either for the Hague Tribunal, which has laboured under the criticism that it has caught too many minnows and not enough big fish. Ten years after the war in Bosnia ended, the two men held most immediately responsible for the carnage in Bosnia, Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, are still at large. And Milosevic is now beyond the court's reach.

One lesson to be learnt from this debacle concerns the length of the trial. It was an error to throw the book at Milosevic. He was indicted on more than 60 counts, linked to virtually every armed enterprise in which Serb forces were involved in the Nineties. Milosevic spotted the potential weakness in this strategy and exploited it skilfully after he took charge of his own defence. Four years on, it was not inevitable that he would even be found guilty of the main charge of genocide, as the lawyers had struggled to establish a paper trail leading from Srebrenica, or the camps in north-west Bosnia, to the president's door.

Given Milosevic's secretive and informal style of government, it was not surprising that documents or minutes of meetings rarely surfaced to prove that Milosevic personally ordered bombings or atrocities. Former intimates of his recall studiously vague pronouncements to henchmen in the field. "Do what you have to do", or "Finish the job", was the gist of it.

The court now trying Saddam Hussein has learnt a lesson from Milosevic's messy trial. The prosecutors have narrowed the charge list right down to those areas where the defendant's involvement appeared to be clear. As Milosevic hid behind the fiction that events in Bosnia and Croatia were nothing to do with Serbia, it might have made more sense to concentrate on the bloodshed in Kosovo, which was a province of Serbia and indisputably his domain.

Now, the tribunal must press on with its demands for Serbia to hand over Mladic at least, and not be deterred by weasel words from Belgrade about how Milosevic's death will make fresh handovers of Hague indictees problematic. The court needs to be supported to the hilt in this by the European Union, which has set a deadline of 5 May for the handover of Mladic if talks on Serbia's eventual EU membership are to proceed. Embarrassment over the death of Milosevic must not lead to fudging on that score. That would be a disastrous outcome, granting this evil man a wholly undeserved victory from the grave.