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

Milosevic Calls Ex-Canadian Ambassador

Despite complaining of further health problems, former Yugoslav president remains in court to question diplomat who witnessed country’s break-up.
By Michael Farquhar
Ex-Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic continued to flesh out his defence against charges relating to the wars in Croatia and Bosnia this week, calling Canada's former ambassador in Belgrade to the witness stand.



James Bissett was assigned to Yugoslavia from October 1990 to June 1992, during which time Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia broke from the Yugoslav federation, sparking wars in all three countries.



The witness said he felt Milosevic had been unfairly painted as an instigator of the crisis when in fact he had worked tirelessly to keep Yugoslavia united.



He also discussed mounting tensions in Kosovo during the same period, which culminated in the late Nineties with the eruption of a full-scale insurgency and NATO air strikes intended to halt alleged ethnic cleansing by Belgrade, for which Milosevic also faces charges.



Bissett – who emphasised that he was not in court on behalf of the Canadian government, which took part in the bombing campaign – described it as an "appalling act".



Milosevic conducted his examination of Bissett despite complaining of a decline in his already poor health. The previous day, he had reported "a thundering noise in my head" and said that his symptoms were "getting worse".



Judges this week denied a request for him to be temporarily released to receive treatment in Moscow for health problems including high blood pressure. (see “Milosevic Denied Request To Be Treated in Moscow” in this week’s Tribunal Update package).



The accused appeared reluctant, however, to run the risk that the defence lawyer assigned to his case, Steven Kay, might question Bissett if he was absent from court on health grounds. "I certainly intend to examine my witness. Nobody else can do it," he told Presiding Judge Patrick Robinson. "If you feel that we must go on now, I will examine."



Bissett said he felt that much more could have been done by the international community to avoid the collapse of Yugoslavia in the Nineties and the wars that followed. He argued that Germany in particular had encouraged the crisis by pressing for the "premature" recognition of Croatia and Slovenia as independent states.



The witness questioned the prosecution premise that Milosevic, who had limited formal powers as the president of Serbia at the time, manipulated events by wielding informal control over federal bodies including the Yugoslav People's Army, JNA.



"I saw no evidence of that," said Bissett.



He also disputed the allegation that in 1989, Serbia stripped Kosovo Albanians of the right to run their own police and education systems. Bissett linked changes in the region to the withdrawal of ethnic Albanians from Yugoslav institutions, in protest at the ending of a veto they had previously enjoyed over amendments to the Serbian constitution.



Bissett went on to describe the bombing campaign which ended the Kosovo crisis in 1999 as nothing more than “an opportunity for NATO, on the eve of its 50th birthday, to demonstrate… that it was still a useful and viable force”.



Judge Robinson brought Milosevic’s examination of Bissett to an end after repeatedly criticising him for wasting time on irrelevant matters and going over old ground.



During cross-examination, prosecutor Geoffrey Nice sought to present Bissett as unreliable and as uncritically pro-Serbian, demanding at one point, “You put out evidence on the Serb side, trusting almost everything you hear in their favour, don’t you?”



“It is true that I think the Serb side have been demonised,” the witness replied.



Nice also highlighted Bissett’s past criticism of the Hague tribunal and his description of the proceedings against Milosevic as a “Stalinist show-trial”. Bissett acknowledged making the remarks but said that was no longer his view.



Earlier in the week, the court finished hearing testimony from Marko Atlagic, who became a member of the Croatian parliament just as the country embarked on its bid for independence.



Atlagic – a Serb – had testified previously that this period was marked by anti-Serb sentiment, attacks on Orthodox Christian sites and a nostalgia for the fascist puppet government installed in Zagreb by the Nazis during the Second World War.



While he admitted that crimes were committed on both sides, the witness continued to argue this week that the conflict in Croatia was instigated by Croatian paramilitaries and that local Serbs were "in general opposed to the war option".



He said one incident mentioned in the indictment against Milosevic – an alleged attack by Serb forces on the village of Skabrnja in November 1991 which apparently left 38 non-Serb civilians dead – occurred only because Croatian paramilitaries based there had shelled the surrounding area and attacked Yugoslav troops. Atlagic added that the paramilitaries had used the civilians as human shields.



He acknowledged that the indictment against Milosevic was correct in saying that another attack the following month, against the village of Bruska and the hamlet of Marinovic had left 10 people dead, including nine Croats. But he said that the perpetrators of this crime were "irregular groups" from a neighbouring village.



The court went into private session to allow Atlagic to confidentially reveal the sources of his information on these episodes, each of which occurred in or near his own constituency of Benkovac.



The witness said he "doubted" that volunteers from Serbia had been involved in the Skabrnja incident, even after Nice confronted him with the results of a JNA investigation which said this might be the case.



Atlagic also dismissed evidence given by Croatian Serb politician Milan Babic, which suggested that the Croatian Serb leadership had an intimate relationship with the Serbian and Yugoslav authorities. The witness said Babic, who was "not a reliable man", was probably either blackmailed or told what to say.



Also this week, Milosevic protested that he urgently needed to know whether he would be granted more time to present his defence. The chamber reminded him of an earlier decision rejecting his application for an extension unless he used his time more efficiently. Judge Robinson said that "nothing has changed since".



Milosevic also objected that years had passed since he first demanded that the court issue subpoenas to former United States president Bill Clinton and former NATO commander Wesley Clark ordering them to testify.



Judge Robinson reminded Milosevic that the chamber could only act on such a request if it was formally presented with all the necessary information. Kay said his team were planning to file a written submission relating to Clinton this week.



The trial will resume on February 27.



Michael Farquhar is an IWPR reporter.