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

Judges Crack Down on Milosevic Case

Court resists efforts by both parties to extend lengthy war crimes trial.
By Michael Farquhar
The future shape of the Hague tribunal’s highest-profile trial, which sees former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic facing charges including genocide, had become increasingly difficult to predict in recent months.

In July, well into the defence stage of the trial, prosecutors moved to reopen their case in order to submit fresh evidence, including a sensational video allegedly showing members of a Belgrade-linked paramilitary group murdering Muslim men from the Bosnian town of Srebrenica in 1995.

The accused, for his part, who is representing himself in court, has become ever more vocal about his need for several months’ extra time in which to present his defence if the trial is to be considered at all fair.

And in recent weeks, a decline in Milosevic’s health even spurred speculation that the case might end with judgements on just a fraction of the charges against him.

But the trial chamber, led by Presiding Judge Patrick Robinson, this week addressed all these outstanding issues in a series of decisions which together map out the shape of things to come.

The judges ruled against granting either party the extensions they sought. With the end of the trial in sight, they also threw out the recently mooted idea of concluding the part of the proceedings relating to alleged war crimes in Kosovo earlier than expected.

Having used up three quarters of the time allotted to his defence, the Kosovo charges are the only allegations which Milosevic has so far made a serious effort to answer. Given the accused’s long-term health problems, however, the possibility that this part of the case would be wrapped up early had led to concerns that the remaining charges relating to the Bosnian and Croatian wars might be left by the wayside.

This week’s decisions, though still open to appeal, would likely see Milosevic’s defence finish in March and remaining courtroom matters dealt with in the middle of the year. The judges would then withdraw to consider their judgement.

Prosecutors had hoped that reopening their case against Milosevic would allow them to call witnesses to authenticate the notorious footage which came to light earlier this year, allegedly showing murders by the so-called Scorpions paramilitary unit.

Included on the list of those set to testify about the film was Slobodan Stojkavic, said to be the Scorpions member who made it. It was also hoped that the video itself could be entered into the body of evidence against Milosevic. This has not yet happened, though excerpts have been played in court.

In addition, prosecutors wanted to use the extra time to call new witnesses and to supply new documentary evidence of an alleged plan to ethnically cleanse large parts of Bosnia, and of Belgrade’s alleged links with crimes there and in Kosovo. They also hoped to enter into evidence the Yugoslav army personnel files of high-ranking military officials.

In their ruling on the matter, however, the judges underlined that the existence of new material and witnesses could only justify reopening the prosecution case if they had become available since the end of the original case and if they couldn’t have been obtained earlier with reasonable effort. A large proportion of the proposed documents and witnesses had not been shown to pass these tests, they said.

The rest of the material and proposed testimony, they went on, did not justify reopening the case because, while much of it would be useful in considering events on the ground in the Nineties, “none is of significance for the ultimate legal question of whether the accused is responsible for the crimes alleged in the indictments”.

With further details of the judges’ decision kept confidential, it remained unclear where specific witnesses and items of evidence, including the so-called Scorpions video, fitted into these various strands of reasoning.

The Scorpions footage had been hailed by many as the “smoking gun” showing a link between Belgrade and the massacre of thousands of men and boys from the town of Srebrenica, an act which judges in other cases at the court have already categorised as genocide.

Even if the infamous video is never entered into evidence, however, Avril McDonald, a professor of international law at the Hague-based Asser Institute, argues that its role in the court case has already served a valuable purpose.

“It was significant at the time that it came out because a lot of people were presented with something that they might not have wanted to believe,” she told IWPR, adding that its showing in court “got exposure that it wouldn’t have had, had it just simply been a regular news story”.

When it came to denying Milosevic’s request for an extension, the judges pointed out that the further 380 hours he sought amounted to more than the total time originally allocated to his defence.

Criticising his refusal to cooperate with his court-assigned defence lawyers, they dismissed Milosevic’s argument that he lacks the resources necessary to present a decent case in the time allowed.

They also described as “misguided” his assertions that the time-saving tactic of using written witness statements in lieu of live testimony – used extensively by the prosecution – would undermine his right to a public hearing.

Instead, they argued that Milosevic had “failed to take a reasonable approach to the presentation of his case” and said they were satisfied that his overwhelming focus on Kosovo was part of a deliberate attempt to win more time.

The judges “strenuously urged” the accused to move on to deal with the Croatia and Bosnia charges.

Jonathan Widell, a doctoral student of law who has written about tribunal affairs for the Serbianna website, told IWPR that the decision appears to reflect a lack of empathy with Milosevic and the health problems he faces.

He also suggested that Milosevic is effectively being made to suffer because of concerns about the length of the trial.

McDonald, on the other hand, welcomed the judges’ moves to draw a line in the sand. “There’s never going to be enough time, in a sense,” she told IWPR. “[Milosevic] will keep going as long as he gets more time. If he had ten years, he’d spend ten years.”

In a caveat at the end of their decision, the judges underlined that they might reconsider Milosevic’s request for an extension if he starts to show clear signs of using his time in court more wisely.

But Judith Armatta of the Coalition for International Justice says it is unclear how much effect this will have on Milosevic’s tactics.

“I would expect him to make slight adjustments in his game plan, hoping they are enough to convince the trial or appeals [judges] that he is attempting to present an appropriate defence,” she told IWPR, adding that Milosevic is “playing for as much time as possible on the world stage”.

But, she went on, “In the end, I can't see him significantly changing his strategy.”

Also this week, the trial chamber announced its decision to give Milosevic six weeks’ rest over the Christmas period, in line with recommendations made by his medical team in recent weeks.

On December 12, the last hearing in the trial before the court entered its winter recess, Milosevic made a surprise request to be allowed to spend some of the break receiving treatment at a medical institute in Moscow.

Reminding the accused that “a host of matters” would have to be dealt with before any such provisional release could be granted, Judge Robinson said the request would not be considered unless the court was provided with a formal written submission.

The trial is due to resume on January 23.

Michael Farquhar is an IWPR reporter in London.

More IWPR's Global Voices

FakeWatch Africa
Website to provide multimedia training and resources for fact-checking and investigations.
FakeWatch Africa
Africa's Fake News Epidemic and Covid-19: What Impact on Democracy?