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

Milosevic

By Ana Uzelac in The Hague (TU No 398, 18-Mar-05)
By IWPR

General Radomir Gojovic, the army’s former chief of legal staff, presented the UN court with leaflets given out to Yugoslav army soldiers fighting in Kosovo in 1999, which ordered them to respect the Geneva conventions.


He also brought sheets of statistics to prove that Serb military prosecutors conducted investigations into cases of suspected war crimes committed by the country’s security forces at the time.


Milosevic – who is conducting his own defence – appeared to hope that this testimony would counter claims made in the Kosovo section of the indictment he is facing. The prosecutors allege that the former Serbian leader, in his role as supreme commander of the Yugoslav security forces, did not try to prevent or punish crimes committed against Albanian civilians.


It was the first time in his six-month long defence case that the former Yugoslav president clearly spoke the legal language of the tribunal and countered some of the charges he faces with concrete facts and documents.


Milosevic is accused of planning and orchestrating the expulsion of some 800,000 Kosovo Albanians from the region in an operation that started on the first day of the three-month NATO bombardment of Serbia in 1999. The air strikes were in response to earlier cases of Serb violence against the civilian population.


Hague prosecutors allege that the mass expulsions, which lasted between March and June 1999, were accompanied by killings and the systematic plunder and destruction of Albanian property.


The Kosovo indictment against Milosevic details 17 separate cases of mass killings, accounting for just under a thousand victims.


But this week’s testimony revealed that - with one exception - none of these cases appeared to interest Yugoslav military prosecutors, who largely focused on comparatively smaller incidents involving fewer victims.


Milosevic personally read out the details of some of these cases.


In one, he described how Serbian soldiers killed five Albanian civilians they found hiding in an already abandoned village, then threw their bodies in a well and set it on fire.


A further one mentioned two Albanian civilians who were taken from a refugee convoy and shot. In another, the court heard of a platoon commander who ordered his soldiers to “calibrate (sic) their guns” on an Albanian. “As a result, the civilian died,” Milosevic read out calmly.


In all these official military reports, Albanians were referred to as “Shiptars” – a derogatory term when used by Serbs.


However, all but one of the mass executions detailed in the indictment against Milosevic were conspicuously absent.


The only case investigated by both the Serbian authorities and Hague prosecutors was the case of the village of Izbica, where the indictment alleges that at least 120 Albanian civilians were executed in late March 1999.


Although the Hague tribunal claims that the crime was committed on March 28, 1999 - just four days after the start of the NATO bombardments - the resulting investigation was launched much later.


During cross-examination, Prosecutor Geoffrey Nice tried to prove that the Serb investigation was only launched because Belgrade could not cover up the massacre, due to aerial photographs of the Izbica burial sites captured by United States spy planes and later released to the public.


But the witness insisted that the existence of the aerial photos was irrelevant, and that Belgrade had launched the investigation when enough evidence had been collated to warrant it. He also noted that the Serb prosecutors had initiated inquiries into other large crimes overlooked by The Hague – such as the discovery of 140 fresh graves in the village of Dosevac.


Throughout his testimony, the witness explained that military prosecutors had found it difficult to investigate crimes in Kosovo due to the NATO bombardments, and stressed that they had been working under constant threat to their lives.


Under further cross-examination it emerged that only one of the Serb investigations had been classed as a “war crime”, with others being listed as “murders”.


Nice put it to the witness that this was in order to conceal the true nature of the crimes. But Gojovic insisted that this was done because, at the time, war crimes carried a lesser sentence under Serbian law, so military prosecutors wanted to classify it as murder, a more serious offence.


However, the witness did not make it clear how many of those investigated were found guilty or punished for the crimes. The cases were “complex” and lengthy, he said, and many lasted well beyond the time he left his post in 2001. In one case, he said, three soldiers were found guilty and sentenced to between seven and nine years in prison. However, a higher court had later overturned the verdicts.


A long-term observer of Milosevic trial told IWPR that this week’s testimony was “unique”.


“It was the first time that Milosevic was doing what a defence lawyer should do - presenting facts and evidence to support his case, instead of political theories,” said Heikelina Verrijn Stuart, a Dutch lawyer and Milosevic trial commentator for Netherlands public radio.


“But I was wondering throughout the testimony whether he realised that he was admitting to many facts that he has until now been busy denying.”


The cross-examination of Gojovic is expected to continue next week.


Ana Uzelac is IWPR’s programne manager in The Hague.