PROFILE: Slobodan's Solicitor

The former president's lawyer has a flair for making the headlines, but is he Milosevic's wisest counsel?

PROFILE: Slobodan's Solicitor

The former president's lawyer has a flair for making the headlines, but is he Milosevic's wisest counsel?

Slobodan Milosevic's lawyer rejects the validity of war crimes tribunal, yet handles as large a case-load in The Hague as any Serbian lawyer.

And there are more contradictions. Known for his vigorous defence, he advises defendants that voluntary surrender can be beneficial. A firm nationalist, he appears to have publicly conceded one of the key pillars of the defence of his most famous client.

Toma Fila, in short, is an enigma. Variously described as flamboyant, volatile, mocking and contrary, the Serbian lawyer is rarely out of the headlines.

Over the past five years, he has defended four indictees at the international tribunal - though his most notorious client, Slobodan Milosevic, has yet to appear before prosecutors.

Fila told the Banja Luka magazine Reporter in September last year, on the eve of the democratic changes, that he did not expect Milosevic to be extradited. But if he were, Fila added, he would be more than willing to take the case.

Following the circus outside the former president's residence that led to his surrender on April 1, Fila emerged in the international media confident, restrained and apparently in full charge of the president's defence.

Son of well-known Belgrade lawyer, Filota Fila, Toma Fila represents Jovanka Broz - widow of Tito, the man Milosevic lionised. This link to the towering patron of Yugoslavism, a role to which Milosevic himself aspired, is said to have been one reason the ex-president hired him.

But the fit between counsel and client may be closer still - an unrelenting opposition to the Hague tribunal and a firm backing for Serbian nationalism.

"I am - and am proud to say - a Serbian nationalist," Fila has said. " Every trip I make to The Hague makes me stronger one."

He has said in press interviews that he did not support Milosevic during his years in power. But it seems his opposition did not come from the moderate wing of Serbian politics: he was one of the founders of the ultra-nationalist Party of Serbian Unity, SSJ, formerly led by notorious paramilitary leader Zeljko ("Arkan") Raznatovic. "When I want to call round and have a drink," he once boasted, "I have the pleasure of having whiskey poured by him [Arkan] personally."

His views on turning over indictees to international tribunal have not been exactly diplomatic. "Whoever extradites our people to The Hague," he has said, "are pure Serbian trash."

Yet speaking on October 4, 2000, the day before Milosevic lost power, Fila said talk of granting him immunity from prosecution to secure a peaceful hand over of power was a bad idea as it would mean "the end of the tribunal". As he told Sense news agency, "If something like that happened, all defence councels, including me, would request the release of our clients on the grounds that the tribunal's statute had been violated."

So far, the Yugoslav government has given no indication that Milosevic would be transferred, even after an eventual domestic case on corruption. Although a special Hague envoy has recently travelled to Belgrade with an arrest warrant, Fila claims no international warrant for war crimes charges has been served on his client.

Despite his high profile, Fila's reputation is mixed. According to Tihomir Konstantinovic, who has worked in his office for the past twenty years, his good legal instincts can be hampered sometimes by an uncontrollable temper.

Other observers at The Hague refer to his flamboyant, even mocking courtroom manner. Fila himself boasts of an exchange some years ago with The Hague's first prosecutor, Richard Goldstone, "I told him that my ancestors descended the banana tress 500 years before his and that he should bear that in mind."

Fila also manages to display seemingly contradictory points of view. Though he dissuades indictees from surrendering to The Hague, he has made it clear that anyone who does so voluntarily will have their sentences halved.

Four years ago, Fila said he believed that The Hague had been set up in order to bring Serbia to its knees.

This would be done, he told the weekly Duga, by forcing the country to pay enormous war reparations - thereby "stalling her recovery for two hundred years".

But Serbia would first have to be shown up as the aggressor in the Bosnian and Croatian wars.

Which is, in effect, what Fila seems to have advised Milosevic to admit after his arrest earlier this month. Accused of stealing vast sums of state money, Milosevic's legal challenge to his custody - issued the day after the arrest - says the funds were used to support the Bosnian Serbs.

One view of this document is that it was in fact written by Milosevic. Other legal observers believe Fila may have suggested this approach to stymie extradition. The supposition is that the Kostunica government is well aware that Milosevic may make a similar confession in The Hague - and that this would fuel Croatian and Bosnian demands for war reparations.

Fila's fellow lawyers were shocked at his tactic, given that he'd spent years fending off western accusations of Serbian involvement in Bosnia.

"One cannot defend oneself against one criminal act, in this case the abuse of political office, by confessing to another, namely the aggression in Bosnia," said prominent Belgrade lawyer Rajko Danilovic.

Other lawyers in Belgrade have accused Fila of having a long association with Milosevic's former secret police, known as UDBA. Writing in the Belgrade weekly Srpska rec in 1995, journalist Milovan Brkic claimed that the principal role of Fila and other lawyers at The Hague has been to ensure that none of their clients jeopardised the former regime.

Brkic said that lawyers were being carefully selected to influence proceedings by manipulating defendants and witnesses in order to silence anyone who might endanger the regime. He pointed to the suspicious deaths of two Hague defendants as evidence that clients were even encouraged to commit suicide so as not to implicate the Milosevic government in war crimes.

One of the deceased was Gen. Djordje Djukic, charged with war crimes during the siege of Sarajevo. Released due to lack of evidence, he died soon after at the military hospital in Belgrade in May 1996 suffering from cancer. The other was former Vukovar mayor Slavko Dokmanovic, tried for atrocities in the town, who hanged himself in prison in June 1998 before his sentence was delivered.

Both were represented by Fila. (His other Hague clients have been Goran Lajic, who was released because of mistaken identity, and Mladjo "Krkan" Radic, a defenant in the on-going Omarska trial)

Though charged with libel by Fila and other lawyers named in the article, Brkic repeated his accusations in court on 31 August 1999. He said that his sources came from within the state security service but refused to name names, saying that by doing so he would in effect be signing their death warrants.

Fila dismisses the accusation of complicity. "Brkic should not be taken seriously," he told IWPR in 1999. [See ] "He is well-known for making things up."

One of the lawyers mentioned in Brkic's articles has also been accused of lying to the tribunal. Hague detainee Dusko Tadic accused his lawyer Milan Vujic of manipulating witnesses and jeopardising his defence. Charges of manipulating witnesses have not been proven, but Vujic was fined for contempt of court.

How Fila defers to the interest of the court, and of his infamous client, remains to be seen.

Sinisa Stanimirovic is a journalist for Belgrade daily Glas javnosti.

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