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

Courtside: Milosevic Trial

By Neil Arun in The Hague (TU 304, 10-14 March 2003)
By IWPR

After weeks concentrating on the lines of command between combat units and Milosevic, the prosecution homed in on the sharp end of its case – the killings themselves.


First came Dr Helena Ranta, chief of the Finnish forensic team, which investigated the killing of 41 ethnic Albanians at Racak, Kosovo, in January 1999.


The Kosovo part of the case is finished with, but Dr Ranta was called back to explain comments she gave in an interview with a German magazine in which she said the bodies appeared to have been killed where they were found.


Dr Ranta dismissed suggestions from Milosevic that the bodies had been shot elsewhere and then moved to the scene as part of a conspiracy to make it look as if Serb units had carried out a massacre. “There were no indications of [the victims] being other than unarmed civilians,” she told the court.


Dr Ranta’s team was allowed into Serbia by Milosevic soon after the killing, and the Finns conducted autopsies on the bodies.


Racak is seen by many as starting the count down to the NATO bombing of Serbia. The discovery of the bodies in hills outside the village led to the failed Rambouillet peace talks, which in turn saw the alliance demand the right to install peacekeepers in Kosovo.


When Milosevic refused, NATO launched a 78-day air war which ended with Kosovo coming under United Nations control.


In court, Dr Ranta said her investigations carried out at the time and 10 months later indicated the people died where they were found.


She said bullets in the soil indicated they had been shot at close range from above while lying on the ground.


Dr Ranta said the lack of blood in the soil around the bodies could be explained because the blood was trapped in the multiple layers of clothing worn by the 41 victims.


In cross examination, amicus Branislav Tapuskovic suggested the fact they wore so many layers showed they had been living in the mountains – strengthening claims they were guerrillas, not civilians.


But Dr Ranta said the multiple layers were normal for village people in the area.


Milosevic, questioning her, said that most bullets would not be recoverable because they would get lost in the surroundings.


Dr Ranta refused to say whether the killings were part of a battle or a deliberate massacre, saying this was something for the court.


She said Serb authorities at the time had claimed 37 of the 41 dead had gunpowder on their hands based on paraffin tests. But she said most courts rejected the paraffin test as unreliable.


Milosevic accused Dr Ranta of being part of a conspiracy involving NATO, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, and the Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, to blame the killing on the Serbs in order to provide a pretext for military intervention.


He also challenged her findings, saying they were based on a study done ten months after the killing at a site that had not been secured since that time.


However, Dr Ranta argued that photographs taken at the time of the killing showed that the site had changed little.


Supporting his claim that the dead were KLA fighters, Milosevic produced a photograph showing the grave of a guerrilla killed at Racak on January 15, 1999.


Judge Richard May said that previous evidence had not disputed the presence of KLA units in the area, with a previous witness stating that several soldiers were killed in fighting there in January of that year.


Evidence of massacres in Croatia came from Dr Davor Strinovic, a pathologist who has conducted exhumations in Croatia.


He gave evidence of an examination of a 1991 incident near Lovas, eastern Croatia, where Serb paramilitary units are accused of forcing nine Croat civilians to walk through a minefield.


A Croatian government report given to prosecutors said that all nine were killed in the minefield.


Milosevic asked Dr Strinovic asked how this could be the case if only one corpse was found with mine injuries – the others having been killed with bullets. The latter replied that it was likely the others had refused to walk through the minefield, for which they had been shot.


This week, prosecutors produced a witness who said he was a former paramilitary soldier trained by Zeljko Raznatovic, better known as Arkan.


The witness, identified only as B1738, said he had been trained by Arkan and joined his paramilitary troops moving from Belgrade into Bosnia when war broke out in the spring of 1992.


He told the court that Arkan had told a group of 45 volunteers to protect Serbs in Bijeljina and they also had the job of “clearing the town of Muslim terrorists”.


Prosecutors contend that the unit’s atrocities can be traced back to Milosevic, who had command responsibility.


B1738 said he was a Serb from Croatia who had joined Arkan’s forces after being harassed by Croats for his ethnicity. Once in Bijeljina, he said the 45 men stole around 40 cars, a bus and a fire engine, driving them away to Serbia.


But he said he did not know who was ultimately giving his unit its orders, or whether that command was from the Serb police or Yugoslav army.


Neil Arun is an IWPR contributor.


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