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Milosevic Illness Sparks Courtroom Drama

Defence witness charged with contempt of court as court-appointed lawyer urges judges not to continue trial in absence of ailing defendant.
By Goran Jungvirth

The Slobodan Milosevic trial ground to a halt this week when the accused was deemed too ill to attend court, and his defence witness refused to submit to cross-examination without his “president” in attendance.

The 63-year-old former Yugoslav leader was declared by doctors to be unfit to appear in court on April 19 and 20. They warned that his blood pressure was dangerously high, increasing the “risk of a cardiovascular incident”.

Milosevic is facing more than 60 counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in three separate indictments relating to the conflicts in Kosovo, Bosnia and Croatia.

Milosevic’s absence – which his court-imposed counsel Steven Kay QC insisted was on doctors’ orders and against the wishes of the defendant – caused drama in courtroom number one after his witness Kosta Bulatovic refused to answer any questions from prosecutor Geoffrey Nice.

The trial chamber, led by presiding judge Patrick Robinson of Jamaica, warned the witness on April 20 that his refusal to cooperate could lead to a contempt charge - which may result in a seven-year prison sentence and a fine of around 131,000 US dollars - and advised him to seek legal advice.

Assuring Bulatovic that video recordings and transcripts of his time in court would be passed on to Milosevic and that the former Yugoslav president would be able to recall the witness for re-examination if needed, the judges urged the witness to consider his options overnight.

But the following day, the witness told the trial chamber that he would face the consequences rather than submit to the “shame” of testifying without his “president” in the courtoom.

"I'm testifying for President Milosevic, and I can't continue to give my testimony without him, because it would bring shame on me, my family and my clan, as well on the Serbian people and state," Bulatovic told the court.

Bulatovic, who led the Kosovo Serbs’ resistance movement at the time dealt with in the Kosovo indictment, has since been formally charged with contempt of court under Rule 77 of the tribunal’s statute. He is expected to appear in court on May 5.

The ill health of the accused and the reaction of the most recent witness are now expected to put the Hague tribunal’s recent decisions to the test.

In late 2004, the trial chamber responded by imposing counsel on the defendant against his will, but the proceedings ground to a halt after Milosevic’s proposed defence witnesses refused to attend in protest at the decision.

The appeals chamber later restored Milosevic’s right to lead his own defence, but ordered Kay and his assistant Gillian Higgins to remain on standby in case the defendant’s health again stopped the trial.

It was the appeal chamber’s belief that the British duo would be able to take control of the defence case in the event that Milosevic was indisposed, reducing any further delay in the proceedings.

But this week Kay argued that the trial should not proceed without the presence of the former Serb leader – and warned the judges to expect another boycott by defence witnesses.

Milosevic’s high blood pressure and heart condition have caused a series of delays and concerns in this high profile trial, which is now in its fourth year.

On April 20, Judge Robinson read out a medical report which warned that the defendant’s blood pressure had risen alarmingly and placed him in serious danger of a stroke.

Milosevic’s medication has been altered to deal with the situation, and a further examination has been scheduled for April 25.

Ironically, this latest interruption came just days after a status conference was held to examine how the defendant was using the time allocated to him for his defence and how best to speed up the marathon trial – with the prosecution urging the trial chamber to sit four days a week rather than the current three.

In the meantime, Judge Robinson asked Kay and Higgins to begin the preparation of the next defence witness, Dragan Jasovic – a Serbian policeman from Kosovo who is believed to have links to the security services.

However, media reports suggest that this witness has already refused to appear if Milosevic’s health continues to keep him out of the courtroom.

Kay insists that he cannot adequately defend Milosevic as the former Serb leader refuses to speak to him, and has warned the bench that the trial should not continue in the absence of the defendant.

The British QC also raised the possibility that the sudden and dramatic decline in Milosevic’s health could leave him permanently incapable of being present in court.

However, the tribunal released a statement on April 22 advising that the trial would resume on April 25 – and that Milosevic will be present in the courtroom when it does.

Goran Jungvirth is an IWPR contributor in Zagreb.