Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic is behind bars in Belgrade's Bacvanska Street central prison after surrendering to police in the early hours of Sunday morning, April 1.
Serbian interior minister Dusan Mihajlovic said Milosevic had come quietly in the end. "There was no resistance and therefore no reason to use force," Mihajlovic said. ""Mr Milosevic will enjoy all the rights granted to him by the law."
Reporters at the scene said shots were heard just before a convoy of cars swept out of the gates of Milosevic's home. Mihajlovic said the former president's enraged daughter Marija had fired several shots into the air as her father was taken away. Police sources claim Milosevic was drunk.
Serbian justice minister Vladan Batic said Milosevic would not be charged with resisting arrest. "Nothing dramatic happened," he said.
Branislav Ivkovic, deputy president of Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia, SPS, insisted his party leader had not been arrested. Ivkovic said Milosevic had surrendered voluntarily to investigating officers to prevent a bloodbath.
"He [Milosevic] considered that as a thrice elected president, of Serbia and Yugoslavia, he had the right to expect the investigative judge to hear him in his house," Ivkovic said. "The first act of a staged political trial has begun," he added.
Milosevic's surrender ended a protracted stand-off which began on Friday afternoon. The deputy head of state security forces Zoran Mijatovic visited Milosevic and handed him his arrest warrant. Milosevic's SPS supporters promptly walked out of parliament in protest.
Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic ordered heavily armed security forces to storm Milosevic's villa. They were turned away by a small crowd of his supporters and Yugoslav army soldiers guarding the former president.
Early on Saturday, special police climbed over fences surrounding Milosevic's residence and sporadic shooting broke out. Two officers were injured and a news photographer suffered a minor injury to his hand.
According to news agencies, Milosevic shouted out from a window that he refused to accept a warrant from "NATO lackeys", a reference to the current Yugoslav authorities, and he told one policeman that he would "not be taken away alive". A second raid was attempted on Saturday but was rebuffed again by Yugoslav army soldiers. Political analysts say Djindjic is keen to see the arrest go through as he recently promised the US government that he could secure Milosevic's arrest without the aid of Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica or the head of the Yugoslav army.
Federal interior minister Zoran Zivkovic later accused the Yugoslav army units at the residence of attempting to stage a "mini coup". Political analysts said Kostunica had sought to block the arrest through the army, which has backed him in an on-going feud with Djindjic.
But army units pulled back just before Milosevic finally gave himself up. On Saturday, after an emergency meeting of senior army officers and politicians, Kostunica said "Our purpose is to calm tensions. We want to avoid a state crisis." Signalling a change of tack Kostunica added, "Whoever shoots at the police or commits crimes has to answer to the law. No one is above it, not even Slobodan Milosevic. One individual should not endanger the state and the system."
Rumours of an imminent arrest operation had been circulating for days in the Serbian capital. Preparations at the prison had been underway for four days. Belgrade streets are plastered with posters of Milosevic against backgrounds of war devastation, economic deprivation and domestic repression, with the banner headline, "Ko je kriv?" (Who is Guilty?).
During a confused weekend of conflicting reports, embarrassed Serbian authorities had been forced to withdraw claims that Milosevic was already in custody. One report had Milosevic transferred to the Palace of Justice earlier on Friday where he was brought before a Serbian investigative judge, Goran Cavlina. A source at the court said Cavlina conducted a two-hour preliminary discussion with Milosevic and a second meeting had been scheduled for the next morning. Other officials could not confirm the account but police sources told IWPR that this was a staged attempt to convince Milosevic supporters that he was not at the Dedinje, but in custody, clearing the way for a discreet police entry into the former president's home.
But soon television footage showed Milosevic back at home before a cheering crowd of around 400 die-hard supporters, some of whom were armed. In an extraordinary interview, he told Radio B-92 that he was safe, enjoying a cup of coffee, "I'm just drinking coffee with my friends here and I'm just fine, watching all of this like all the citizens of Serbia."
The Serbian interior ministry said Saturday that Belgrade prosecutors will charge Milosevic with a myriad of criminal offences and will soon indict senior aides in his circle, including former federal customs director Mihalj Kertes and former security services chief Radomir Markovic.
Natasa Kandic, founder and director of the Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Centre, said such charges would "not satisfy the families of the thousands who died as a result of his policies. It is in the interests of Serbia that Milosevic be transferred to The Hague immediately."
Kandic said she did not expect such a move in the next few days, but that "he would go there in the end."
The question of Milosevic's arrest has bitterly divided Kostunica and Djindjic. A strong nationalist, Kostunica has denied Serbian responsibility for war crimes, and - despite his legal background - has rejected the jurisdiction and legitimacy of the Hague tribunal. A meeting some weeks ago with Hague chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte ended abruptly.
Djindjic has taken a more pragmatic view, insisting that is it not worth risking newly formed relationships with the West over the fate of the former president. A compromise position, according to sources close to the ruling coalition, could be to try Milosevic in Serbia on domestic charges, including corruption, embezzlement, political assassinations and electoral fraud. Afterward, with his reputation ruined and a potential nationalist backlash blunted, the government would run less of a risk in handing him over to the war crimes tribunal.
A key factor in recent developments appears to have been the March 31 deadline imposed by Washington. The US Congress, which controls government expenditures, has threatened to cut off essential aid if Yugoslavia fails to demonstrate clear evidence of cooperation with the Hague tribunal by that date. Washington is expected to evaluate Belgrade's compliance with the ultimatum on Monday.
The weekends confusing events highlight the uncertainty over whether Milosevic will be sent eventually to the Hague to face war crimes charges.
The recent surrender of other Serb war crimes suspects and the arrest of Milosevic is part of a recent effort to demonstrate, as Yugoslav foreign minister Goran Svilanovic recently told IWPR, that Belgrade authorities were "on the way to fulfilling all our international obligations."
With so many pressing issues facing Yugoslavia, the Svilanovic questioned why the international community focused on what he called such a "small issue" as the arrest of Milosevic. Yet he noted that Belgrade has recently invited the tribunal to open an office in Belgrade. The new government is developing domestic legislation, in consultation with international bodies, regarding cooperation with the Hague. And it has launched a truth and reconciliation commission.
Milosevic's arrest goes further in satisfying international concerns. This is especially the case because of doubts over the relevance of some of the steps taken so far. The truth commission has been criticised for its unclear mandate and inclusion of nationalists among its members. As the tribunal is a UN body and not a state, many international lawyers argue that handing Milosevic over to the war crimes tribunal would merely represent a "transfer", and not an "extradition", and therefore does not require new domestic legislation.
Del Ponte said on Swiss radio over the weekend, "I believe that within a few months, I would say in the course of this year, Milosevic should be transferred to the Hague."
The real question may be timing. The Hague prosecutor, who is also investigating charges relating to Bosnia and Croatia, has called not for immediate transfer but for an "explicit commitment" that Milosevic will end up at the tribunal soon.
The distinction is strategically helpful and politically useful for Belgrade (and for the Hague), where debate over potentially competing trials under the different jurisdictions has simmered.
"We don't mind if we have to wait a few days or a little longer [for Milosevic's transfer]," prosecutor spokesperson Florence Hartmann told IWPR.
"But the tribunal has primacy, and Belgrade has to make clear it will not make us wait for it to hold a trial first," she said. "They are just beginning their investigations, which could take a long time, and we are ready to go now."
So far, no Belgrade official has said if there has been an official shift in the government's position on the question of Milosevic's transfer to the Hague tribunal. But it seems that Milosevic will soon be on trial in a domestic court and one step closer to war crimes tribunal.
Anthony Borden is executive director of IWPR. Gordana Igric, Petar Lukovic and Zeljko Cvijanovic contributed to this report.
As coronavirus sweeps the globe, IWPR’s network of local reporters, activists and analysts are examining the economic, social and political impact of this era-defining pandemic.
- Europe & Eurasia
- Latin America
- Middle East & North Africa
- Focus Pages
- Training & Resources
- Print Publications
- IWPR Spotlight