Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Milosevic Witness Claims Not Backed Up
Slobodan Milosevic brought two high-profile witnesses to testify at the Hague tribunal this week, but the duo provided little evidence to back their words up – leading the judges to warn that their testimonies carry little weight as a result.
Ex-Soviet prime minister Nikolai Ryzhkov and General Leonid Ivashov - a former hard-line Soviet army officer and the head of the Russian defence ministry's international cooperation department at the time of the NATO bombardment of Serbia in 1999 - appeared as Milosevic’s witnesses in the second week since he won back the right to present his own defence.
But much like the previous week, this was far from an unqualified success in legal terms.
The former Yugoslav president is facing more than 60 counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in three indictments relating to the conflicts in Kosovo, Bosnia and Croatia. The witnesses he called this week were expected to present evidence rebutting the charges laid down in the Kosovo indictment.
General Ivashov – who was not classed as an “expert witness” by the trial chamber and as such was warned that he could not offer his own opinions as evidence – was not able to present any documents to back up any of his claims.
Addressing the accused as “Mr President”, he told the court that the Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, were “terrorists” linked to the al-Qaeda organisation, and accused the US and NATO of wanting to destroy Yugoslavia and of using the region as a “testing ground” for experimental munitions, including ones coated with controversial depleted uranium.
When asked by Milosevic what the character of the KLA had been, Ivashov replied, “Well, Mr President, the KLA never concealed their separatist ambitions, and they received foreign support to achieve them.”
Ivashov painted a picture of the KLA as an “illegal terrorist organisation” who were used by the United States to destabilise Serbia and its leadership, as part of a wider plan to overthrow Milosevic and gain greater influence in the Balkans. In return for their help, Ivashov claimed, the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo would receive what they wanted most – the chance of independence.
“[Then-US Secretary of State] Madeleine Albright asked [KLA commander] Hashim Thaci to agree to having NATO troops in Kosovo in return for the promise of a referendum on independence,” Ivashov claimed.
At the time, Ivashov was an outspoken opponent of NATO’s presence in Kosovo. He was also widely credited as the man behind the Russian troops’ decision to storm Pristina airport in the aftermath of the bombardment, a move that resulted in a diplomatic stand-off between NATO and Russia.
In his testimony this week, Ivashov also claimed that the Serb forces in Kosovo were only responding to the crimes committed by the KLA, and that Milosevic’s only wish was to restore peace to the area.
But as the witness was not able to back these claims up with any reports or transcripts, presiding judge Patrick Robinson of Jamaica warned that the court “would not attach much weight” to the testimony.
“This evidence is totally meaningless if [the witness] is not able to pass on to the court the documents he is [basing his testimony on],” Robinson warned.
Prosecutor Geoffrey Nice also put Ivashov under pressure for his refusal to present any documents to back up his assertion that the international community was “determined” to destroy Yugoslavia.
“What is your best piece of evidence for this?” he asked Ivashov on November 24.
The witness again told the court that he was not able to present any physical evidence, claiming that the bulk of documents that he based his testimony on were still classified.
“But the Balkans were declared to be a region of interest to the United States,” he said, claiming that in 1993, the US had developed a strategic concept to gain control of all areas of interest to it.
When Nice pointed out that as the general had not been in Kosovo at the time mentioned in the indictment against Milosevic, the witness replied that he knew what the situation had been like because he had spoken to two Albanian Catholic refugees who claimed they had left the area to escape KLA “terrorists”.
Milosevic objected strongly to Nice’s treatment of Ivashov’s testimony, describing it as “below anyone’s human dignity”, but was rebuffed by Robinson, who explained that the testimony given by the witness had to be tested, and that this was being done in an “entirely appropriate” manner.
Earlier in the week, Ryzhkov, who also addressed the defendant as “Mr President”, also claimed that the international community – particularly the US – had a long-held ambition to gain control of the former Yugoslavia, and used NATO troops to destablise the region to this effect.
He also denied that the Serb authorities led by Milosevic had the ultimate ambition of annexing the Serb-populated areas of the Balkans to create a “Greater Serbia”.
“I never heard anything being said about a Greater Serbia, not in relation to the charges [the defendant] is facing here,” he said. “But I heard a lot about a Greater Albania.”
Throughout this week’s proceedings, Robinson continually interrupted the defendant to remind him of the rules of the court, particularly with regard to making “leading questions” – those that already contain the desired answer.
Milosevic was also reminded that the court would not tolerate any attempts to make political speeches in the form of questions to the witness.
Tribunal watchers feel that the court and prosecutor are doing their best to help him conduct his defence, while at the same time trying to keep him on as firm a rein as possible.
But this assistance does not appear to be being taken on board, as this week’s troubles suggest.
Ironically, one possible solution to difficulties with his examination in chief is right in front of the defendant in the form of his court-appointed counsel, Steven Kay QC and Gillian Higgins, who formerly acted as amici curiae or friends of the court.
The British duo have asked to leave the case, claiming that the defendant’s refusal to communicate with them has caused an “irreconcilable conflict”, and that to remain in a role where the client’s best interests cannot be protected would be in breach of the tribunal’s code of conduct.
The trial chamber is expected to make a decision on this matter shortly, and Kay and his assistant have already offered Milosevic assistance until the chamber makes its ruling.
So far, the former Yugoslav president has not taken Kay up on his offer, and tribunal watchers feel that he is unlikely to do so.
Milosevic has always maintained that he would not cooperate with any counsel appointed by the court he regards as illegal, and relies instead on three Belgrade-based legal advisers recognised by the tribunal.
Judith Armatta of the Coalition for International Justice, a long-term observer of the Milosevic trial, believes that advice from the court-appointed counsel could have minimised or even prevented many of the defendant’s problems this week.
“Milosevic doesn’t seem to know what it means to prepare a witness, and legal advice would help. It’s a lot more than just telling them what questions to expect and how to respond. He has to make sure that the evidence is there.
“[Kay and Higgins] would have talked to him about what he wanted to achieve and helped with preparing his witnesses, and also helped the witnesses to cope with the possibility of a strong cross-examination.”
The defendant also complained that the prosecutor had run over the time allotted to him – half the 250 minutes taken for the examination in chief – but was told that the trial chamber also felt that this was appropriate given the high profile of the witnesses.
“Milosevic has got to get his act together,” noted Armatta. “He seems to think that he can bring a high-level person to testify on his behalf, and that the seniority of the witness alone will be enough to establish their credibility. It’s not.”
The trial is expected to resume on November 30.
Alison Freebairn is an IWPR editor in London.
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