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


Judges consider allotting more time to ex-president’s defence.
By Michael Farquhar
Judges overseeing the war crimes trial of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic this week heard submissions on the possibility of giving him more time to present his defence case.

Milosevic, who insists on acting as his own lawyer despite serious health problems, argued that current plans - according to which his trial is due to finish around March next year - would not afford him nearly enough time to fend off charges including genocide.

Prosecutor Geoffrey Nice replied that, having squandered the months of court-time already available to him, the accused was in no position to expect sympathy.

Questions about the future of Milosevic’s trial – which has been running since February 2002 – have come to a head in recent weeks, with judges also suggesting the possibility of breaking the proceedings up into more manageable parts.

One option, they have said, would be to wrap up evidence relating to alleged ethnic cleansing in Kosovo – the only set of charges which Milosevic has yet made a real effort to answer to – and issue a judgement on that part of the case as soon as possible.

This week’s discussion – wedged between testimony from the latest two in a series of defence witnesses who served in the Yugoslav Army, VJ, in Kosovo – appeared intended to air outstanding issues before the judges decide how to proceed.

Milosevic opened his own submission on the subject by insisting that the right to a fair trial includes the concrete right to be given the time and resources necessary to present a proper defence case.

His own fair trial rights, he argued, has been infringed by the fact that, according to his court-assigned counsel Steven Kay, his case already involves well over a million sheets of documentation. Milosevic said he had no time to read through all this material.

He went on to insist that the situation had been exacerbated by the extensive use of written affidavits to present the testimony of prosecution witnesses. He and his team of “associates” – he refuses to cooperate with Kay – lacked the resources to use this same tactic in his defence case, he said.

Milosevic went on to say that the names of 190-odd witnesses that he presented to the court recently had been pared down from a much longer list and represent the “smallest possible number” that he needs to call between now and the end of his case.

Assuming that he would need an average of two hours to examine each witness, Milosevic argued, the remainder of his planned defence could be completed in under 150 days in court, including the time needed for prosecutors to cross-examine. With the trial sitting three days a week in deference to Milosevic’s health, this would amount to roughly another year.

The prosecutor replied that the average time Milosevic has spent examining each of his witnesses to date is in fact around six hours – meaning that, given free reign, his case could drag on for at least another three years.

Nice also attacked the accused’s argument that he has been disadvantaged by the allegedly vast resources available to tribunal prosecutors. He argued that Milosevic has the benefit of only having to raise doubts about the charges against him in order to go free, whilst it falls upon the prosecution to actually prove them. At the same time, he said, the trial proceedings so far have revealed that Milosevic and his associates have a much easier time accessing key evidence such as Yugoslav military records.

The real thrust of Nice’s argument, however, was to insist that it has been Milosevic’s choice throughout his trial to spurn the services of his team of court-assigned lawyers and to ignore repeated advice from judges about how to better use his time. If this results in him being unable to present a decent defence in the allotted time – equal to the time it took the prosecutors to argue their own case – that is his own responsibility, said Nice.

In fact, one of the few justifiable reasons for judges to give the accused an extension, the prosecutor argued, would be if they came to the conclusion that he cannot actually be considered responsible for his decisions to date. In a recent court document, Nice allowed, with more than a hint of irony, that judges might consider Milosevic to have been handicapped by an “obsessive desire for publicity” or “a compulsive desire to establish a public statement of how he would like history to view the wars in which he participated”.

Setting aside this possibility, Nice argued in court that “the time has come when the chamber should say to him, ‘No more’.”

Prior to this hearing, the judges heard testimony from General Krsman Jelic, who commanded a mechanised VJ brigade in Kosovo during the period in 1999 when soldiers and police are said to have driven some 800,000 ethnic Albanian civilians from their homes.

Jelic talked judges through a series of documents from the time showing that troops in Kosovo had been repeatedly ordered to respect international law.

The witness also denied army involvement in an “anti-terrorist operation” in the village of Racak on January 15, 1999 which allegedly left dozens dead, including a 13-year-old boy. Jelic stood by this denial even when confronted with an army document published the following day which suggested that troops under his own command had sealed off the village while police entered.

The end of the week was dedicated to hearing further evidence from Lieutenant Colonel Janos Sel, who led a VJ company in Kosovo. During cross-examination by Nice last week, Sel was forced to fend off claims by one of his former subordinates which appeared to suggest that he had personally led brutal assaults on Albanian villages and that one of his “preferred activities” was to have women brought into his army encampment to be raped. Sel insisted that he had never heard of the soldier who made the allegations.

His testimony was cut short at the end of last week, however, after he admitted using a workbook to keep notes throughout the conflict, which was subsequently filed in the VJ archives. Comments he made earlier had strongly suggested that no such written record remained of his time in Kosovo.

Armed with a copy of the notebook this week – which judges had ordered to be sent from Belgrade immediately – Nice directed the witness to an entry recording that he was “in search of” the very soldier who made the allegations against him. Sel immediately remembered that the man had disappeared after being sent for a medical examination in Djakovica. Several further references to the same individual in the notebook appeared to broadly support this story.

Nice expressed disbelief that seeing the name written down with only the three-word prefix “in search of” should have such a powerful effect on the witness’s memory, given that he claimed to have no recollection whatsoever of this man last week.

“On the basis of the note I have here, I remembered the soldier,” Sel insisted, adding that the whole issue was irrelevant anyway, since the individual had gone missing too early to have been involved in much of what he said he witnessed.

As the court ran out of time for the week, Milosevic cut in to remind those present of the phenomenon of “visual memory”.

Michael Farquhar is an IWPR reporter in London.

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