Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Hearings in the war crimes trial of Slobodan Milosevic were cancelled this week after the accused told judges he felt too unwell to go on.
The former Yugoslav president, who insists on conducting his own defence despite long-term health problems caused by high blood pressure, complained in court of a headache and pressure in his eyes and ears.
“I feel as if my head weighs half a tonne,” he told presiding Judge Patrick Robinson.
The halt came just a day after Milosevic submitted reports by his personal team of doctors recommending a six-week break in proceedings.
But prosecutors have suggested that having already used up around three-quarters of the hours allotted to his defence case in dealing with only a fraction of the charges against him, Milosevic may simply be playing for more time.
The hold-up began at the end of last week, on November 11, when Milosevic failed to show up in court, apparently because of ill health.
Prosecutor Geoffrey Nice said at the time that he was already troubled by comments the accused’s legal advisors had made to the Serbian press concerning his state of health. “It’s the possible integration of ill health issues with an overall defence strategy that has been causing me concern,” he explained.
Milosevic has already used up most of the time allocated to his defence case dealing almost exclusively with allegations relating to the Kosovo conflict. He has largely neglected two separate indictments covering the wars in Croatia and Bosnia, the latter of which includes charges of genocide.
He announced his intention last month to call nearly 200 more witnesses to speak in his defence, a figure which dwarfs the number who have spoken so far. Judge Robinson, noting that he was not prepared to consider an application for an extension of the case at that stage in the trial, advised Milosevic to make better use of his time.
“It certainly is in his best interest to delay,” said Edgar Chen, an observer of the trial for the Coalition for International Justice. “But whether or not he is using his health issues tactically cannot be discerned so easily.”
Court documents published this week revealed that a doctor at the tribunal’s detention unit had confirmed that Milosevic was unfit to attend the trial on November 11 due to exhaustion, which the accused reportedly attributed to ringing in his ears.
Yet when he was next in court for a scheduled hearing on November 15, Milosevic attacked this diagnosis, and presented judges with reports by his own medical advisors.
His team consists of a Russian angiologist, a French cardiologist and a Serbian ear, nose and throat specialist called Professor Vukasin Andric.
In answer to a question from Judge Iain Bonomy, Milosevic confirmed that this was the same Professor Andric who has already testified for the defence about his experiences during the Kosovo conflict. Milosevic insisted, however, that Professor Andric’s courtroom testimony and medical advice were entirely separate matters.
The three doctors concluded in their report that Milosevic is suffering from difficulty with hearing and balance which they say is linked to a number of cardiovascular problems.
Another ear, nose and throat specialist charged with treating Milosevic, however, has reported finding nothing that would explain his complaints. The specialist has also said that any hearing difficulty that Milosevic may experience is unlikely to be directly linked to his cardiovascular problems.
Asked to clarify what he intended to achieve by submitting reports from his medical team to the court, Milosevic replied, “Nothing other than asking the trial chamber not to ignore what it says... quite specifically, suspension of all physical and mental activities for a period of six weeks.”
Tensions rose as Judge Robinson repeatedly urged the accused to press ahead with his examination of witnesses until the chamber had a chance to read the documents.
As Milosevic continued to press the matter, Judge Robinson eventually snapped, “Are you deaf?”
“I probably am,” muttered Milosevic.
Later on November 15, the chamber issued an order for two of the doctors treating Milosevic – the ear, nose and throat specialist and a cardiologist – to provide full written opinions on the conclusions drawn by the accused’s medical team.
Judge Bonomy declined to put his name to the order. Instead, he criticised Milosevic for announcing the medical reports in court without submitting a clear, written request for a break in the trial. “It is not for the trial chamber to divine his wishes from his cryptic statements,” Judge Bonomy wrote.
He also expressed concern about the potentially prejudicial effects of asking himself and other judges to consider the reliability of Andric’s medical advice before they had come to assess his evidence as a witness in the case.
It was half way through the following day’s session, on November 16, that Milosevic announced his inability to go on examining witnesses. “I want to say,” he added, “that I am opposed to any kind of hearing in my absence.”
When Milosevic was last absent for health reasons in April, judges decided to press ahead with the case anyway, with court-assigned lawyers Steven Kay and Gillian Higgins temporarily running his defence. Contempt proceedings were launched against Kosta Bulatovic, a witness who was testifying at the time, after he refused to continue giving evidence in the absence of the accused.
Milosevic’s complaint about his health was followed by an hour-long break, during which time he was examined by a tribunal doctor. The judges then returned to the courtroom to announce an adjournment until November 21.
Michael Farquhar is an IWPR reporter in London.
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