Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

ANALYSIS: Judges Face Milosevic Dilemma

With the former Serb president's health and defence faltering, the tribunal must somehow help the accused in spite of himself
By Mirko Klarin

Over the next four weeks of the summer recess, until the tribunal resumes on 26 August, the judges must seek new answers to a question that has haunted them ever since Slobodan Milosevic came to The Hague. How to protect the accused, in spite of himself?


They have tried various methods over the past 14 months. First they entrusted three amici curiae - friends of the court - with the task of ensuring the trial was fair; then they named two legal assistants to help Milosevic prepare his defence; and most recently imposed time limits and reduced the number of witnesses to such an extent the prosecution claimed their case was being "emasculated".


Over the last 75 days of evidence by the prosecuting team, judges allowed him to spend around 50 per cent more time than the former - 140 hours compared to 93 - cross-examining witnesses.


Finally, they let the defendant treat the witnesses, prosecutors and judges themselves in a way that would have earned others expulsion from the courtroom and contempt charges.


None of it was of any use. Today, the former Serbian president finds himself in greater legal danger than ever. To complicate matters, his health is failing and he doesn't seem to care.


"That's your problem!" he said again in the courtroom last week, when the judges Richard May and Patrick Robinson expressed concern over a medical report on the defendant's worsening condition. It said Milosevic faced "severe cardio-vascular risk which demanded careful monitoring"; that "medical treatment by a cardiologist is most advisable"; and that his workload must be reduced.


The defendant, though, is no more interested in his state of health than he is in the "false indictments" lodged against him. Both, he says, are the court's business - not his.


Last week, the judges suggested that the appointment of a defence counsel might best reduce the strain that Milosevic is under, sharing cross-examination and preparation of his case. The accused has flatly rejected this, saying he has no intention of appointing a defence for a "non-existing court".


The judges then said they would still examine all the options over the future conduct of the trial and thus will leave for their summer recess with a dilemma on their hands.


When they declared at last week's pre-trial conference that they would insist on a tight schedule for the presentation of evidence for the Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina indictments - running from September 30 to May 16 next year - they confirmed their determination to close this mammoth case, encompassing three wars with a total of 66 counts, as soon as possible.


But the judges are responsible not only for a fair and expeditious trial but for the physical well being of the accused. So Milosevic has some right on his side when he says his health is "their problem".


The recess came at the right moment for defendant, after an exhausting week in which he faced a group of subpoenaed Serbian policemen who appeared at the tribunal against their will.


The first witness, Captain Dragan Karleusa, was treated with contempt by the defendant and denounced as a police agent working for the "lackey authorities" in Belgrade. He said they had instructed him to blame Milosevic for the affair of the refrigerated truck packed with corpses.


Captain Karleusa was assigned to the case in May 2001. His investigation confirmed that a truck containing 86 bodies had been retrieved from the Danube in April 1999 and that they had been secretly relocated and buried in mass graves in a police training compound, in Batajnica, near Belgrade.


These findings were released in Serbia late in May 2001, as a part of what Milosevic described as a media campaign to expedite his transfer to The Hague, which duly took place on June 28, 2001.


As the process of exhuming new mass graves in Batajnica slowed down and then stopped after his transfer to the Netherlands, Milosevic may not be entirely wrong about this. In any case, only two out of five known burial places have been examined.


However, this does not alter the facts discussed before the court last week. The corpse-laden truck was real and not a "phantom", as Milosevic claimed at one point. The bodies were those of civilians and more than 500 have been exhumed so far from mass graves in Batajnica and other locations in Serbia. There are indications that they were Kosovo Albanians, and all the graves were located in or near police camps.


The second policeman to testify last week was criminologist Bosko Radojkovic, from Kladovo in eastern Serbia, close to the place where the mysterious truck surfaced.


Radojkovic was the first officer to see the vehicle and he organised a two-day operation to pull it out of the river. After that he spent a similar period loading the bodies onto new lorries. Finally, he set the truck on fire and destroyed the chassis with dynamite, again on a nearby police range.


At first, Milosevic tried to discredit him and his testimony by referring to a stroke Radojkovic suffered 17 years ago, and to the fact that was admitted to hospital with mental and physical exhaustion after removing and reloading the corpses. He also tried to dispute the photographs Radojkovic took during the operation, referring to discrepancies that turned out to be no more than a result of taking shots from different distances and angles.


In fact, as the cross-examination went on, Milosevic started to display a certain respect for Radojkovic's professionalism and especially for his creative attempts to conceal the origin and contents of the lorry. Radojkovic had first closed a hole from which bodies of the victims had protruded and covered the owner's logo with car paint. As the vehicle had no visible registration, he had taken a couple of local plates, damaged them with a hammer and scraped them against concrete, before placing them on the truck.


However, because around 20 people were involved in the retrieval of the truck and numerous passers-by saw them at work, rumours began to circulate about its origin and contents. To stop them, Radojkovic and his colleagues among the local police circulated their own reports about some Kurds who had tried to escape from Yugoslavia during the NATO bombing and had ended up in the Danube following a traffic accident.


Milosevic seems to have taken to this creative version of events, because during the cross-examination of both Karleusa and Radojkovic, he suggested the truck might indeed have contained "immigrants" smuggled across the border by a local criminal gang.


Captain Karleusa, however, established a direct link between the defendant and the truck. The witness told the tribunal that, during an investigation he organised in 2001, it was established that a decision had been taken to remove all traces of crimes in Kosovo in a March 1999 meeting organised by the then Yugoslav president.


Karleusa referred to a written statement given to the Serbian security agency in a separate investigation by a participant at this meeting - General Radomir Markovic, the former head of the State Security Department, SSD.


Markovic was the third Serbian policemen forced to face his ex-president last week. He was escorted to The Hague from a Belgrade prison where is under investigation over political assassinations allegedly carried out on Milosevic's instructions.


Prosecutor Geoffrey Nice read out parts of Markovic's statement to Serbian investigators on July 2, 2001, in which he admitted he was present at the March 1999 meeting in Milosevic's cabinet with the then interior minister, Vlajko Stojiljkovic - accused together with Milosevic but who has since committed suicide - and General Vlastimir Djordjevic, head of public security at the time.


The statement said that towards the end of the meeting, Djordjevic raised the issue of the removal of Albanian corpses in order "to remove all civilian victims...who could become subjects of an investigation conducted by the tribunal. Milosevic then ordered Stojiljkovic to take all necessary measures to remove the corpses of the Albanian civilians that had already been buried".


It was further stated that Stojiljkovic "assigned General Dragan Ilic to carry out this task", and that later "in informal conversation... before the formal meetings" Ilic had complained of the difficulty of his task, citing the "lack of preparation of his men for such horror" and the reluctance of the people who were expected to help in finding locations where the corpses of Albanian civilians had been buried.


It was also stated that Ilic was dissatisfied with his boss General Djordjevic's handling of the task, and described the discovery of the truck in the Danube as a "result of Djordjevic's bad organisation".


Markovic repeatedly emphasised in his statement that the SSD, which was under his command, had nothing to do with this and that he "would not let [it] get involved in this morbid affair of the exhumations and transport of corpses".


While the witness confirmed to the court that his signature was on the document, he said last week that he had not read the statement before signing it, only "glanced at it". He added that it contained a "free interpretation" of what he had told investigators in Serbia.


He also said that at the meeting with Milosevic there was no discussion about the "removal of corpses" but only on clearing the terrain after military operations, by removing unexploded arms devices, corpses and dead animals, decontamination and reconstruction of damaged infrastructure.


The witness did not explain why such a decision had to be made at such an early stage of the war, before NATO had even started air strikes, even though the defendant had claimed that it was these that caused the greatest destruction and casualties.


In cross-examination, Markovic said that he only signed the statement under pressure after his interrogators offered him his liberty, relocation, a new identity and enough money for the rest of his life.


This was not the end of the dispute over the "free interpretation" of the ex-SSD head's statement, as Prosecutor Nice then announced he would invite both Markovic's interrogator and the person who took his statement in Serbia to The Hague.


Markovic confirmed all Milosevic's claims that the Serbian police and army fully observed international humanitarian law and protected Albanian civilians, especially their politicians, such as Ibrahim Rugova. He agreed with the defendant that the flood of refugees was a consequence of NATO bombing and KLA terrorist activities; that the Serbian police conducted no operations outside its borders and that only "volunteers" went to fight in Croatia and Bosnia.


He even confirmed Milosevic's statements concerning the "patriotism and noble character" of the late Arkan, Zeljko Raznatovic, who organised illegal schemes "in order to help the families of his fallen comrades".


Markovic's testimony might have been more persuasive if Milosevic had not addressed him in such an intimate and familiar way, and if the witness had not used such a submissive and servile manner with his former boss.


The way they behaved last week in the courtroom clearly demonstrated that Martkovic was, and remains, "His Master's Voice".


Mirko Klarin is IWPR senior editor at the war crimes tribunal and editor-in-chief of SENSE News Agency.