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Milosevic Ill as Prosecution Winds Up

Is the president holding out so he can start his defence on Serbia’s most sacred anniversary?
By Karen Meirik

Even from his cell in The Hague detention unit, Slobodan Milosevic continues to frustrate international officials.


On February 18, as scores of journalists arrived in The Hague to watch the tribunal’s chief prosecutor, Carla del Ponte, who had made a special trip to court to address the judges in person, the former Serbian president fell ill and the prosecution’s closing arguments had to be postponed.


In the two years that his trial has been underway, Milosevic has been sick for 64 days, a high number compared with the 295 days he spent in court, which has caused his trial to be postponed 14 times.


Although the tribunal would not provide any details of Milosevic’s latest bout of illness, he is known to suffer from high blood pressure. Recently, he has also suffered from flu and exhaustion.


The frequency of Milosevic’s illnesses has led some court insiders to speculate that the accused is attempting to prolong the prosecution phase of his trial so that he might commence his defence on June 28, the anniversary of the battle of Kosovo Polje in 1389, when Serbian troops were defeated by the Ottoman army.


Known as Vidovdan, or St. Vitus Day, it’s one of the most celebrated days in Serbian history, remembered as the Serbs’ sacrifice to defend Christendom against the invading Muslim army.


It was on this day that Milosevic made his infamous 1989 speech at Kosovo Polje, which many regard as the beginning of the end of Yugoslavia.


The Kosovo Polje anniversary also coincides with the date of Milosevic’s extradition to The Hague in 2001, to face charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.


By beginning his defence on St. Vitus Day, the former Serbian president would win an opportunity to play up his role as a martyr, a man who did everything he could to fight for Serbian interests, only to fall victim to an international conspiracy against his nation.


Although the theory that Milosevic was trying to time his defence with the Serbian holiday originated from within the tribunal, other court officials were quick to dismiss it.


They point out that it would be extremely difficult for Milosevic to feign illness since his health is being monitored by a doctor on a regular basis.


After Milosevic fell ill in October, cardiologists advised that the court schedule should be reduced to three days a week, and the tribunal did so.


Nonetheless, on January 17, Velko Valkanov, a Bulgarian professor who is a personal friend of the accused and the co-founder of the International Committee for the Defence of Slobodan Milosevic, called a press conference to criticise the tribunal for neglecting Milosevic’s health.


“The tribunal acts irresponsibly in the matter of Mr. Milosevic’s health. It ignores all signals showing that the health of the accused is extremely weak. One can ask whether Mr. Milosevic will survive the trial,” said Valkanov – who even alleged the tribunal was trying to bring on Milosevic’s death because it had so little evidence to prove its war crimes case.


“The process against Mr. Milosevic is going on for more than two years. That extensive time was not enough for the big apparatus of Carla del Ponte to prove the guilt of Mr. Milosevic…. The Nuremberg tribunal was able to prove the guilt of 24 Nazis in less than one year. But the Hague tribunal cannot prove the guilt of just one person in its third year,” he said.


Tribunal officials brushed off the allegations as ridiculous, and pointed out that the court, perhaps more than anyone else, had an interest in ensuring that Milosevic remained healthy.


Indeed, in September, after telling the court that Milosevic appeared to fall ill whenever the prosecution planned to introduce particularly important evidence, prosecutor Geoffrey Nice asked the court to force Milosevic to stop smoking.


“It is our understanding from a source that smoking is a significant aggravating factor to the condition of this accused, and that cessation of smoking might materially assist him,” Nice told the judges.


The court acknowledged that stopping smoking might benefit the accused, but did not go as far as to forbid him.


Apparently unconvinced that the tribunal has Milosevic’s best interests at heart, Vladimir Krsljanin, the secretary of Serbia’s Socialist Party, told IWPR that he was afraid the president’s extreme jumps in blood pressure might trigger a heart attack or stroke and called for him to be released so that he might “recover in healthier conditions.”


Milosevic requested provisional release in March 2002, but the court denied it, stating that it was “not satisfied that the accused, if released, would continue to appear for trial and would not pose a danger to any victim, witness or other person”.


Adam LeBor, author of a biography of Milosevic, dismissed claims that Milosevic should be released to recover from his ailments as absurd, and said that conditions in the Scheveningen detention unit provided a much healthier environment than Belgrade.


“Before Milosevic was imprisoned he already suffered from high blood pressure for a long time. He was never good at sports, smoked like a chimney and drank a lot. Viljamovka [pear brandy] and Chivas Regal, to be precise,” said LeBor. “In fact he’s much better off now. In prison he exercises regularly and is not allowed to drink.”


Karen Meirik is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.


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