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

Regional Report: Milosevic's Curious Legal Advisers

The Milosevic defence team appears to deal more in propaganda than legal argument.
By Milanka Saponja-Hadzic

Of the many curiosities of the Slobodan Milosevic trial, one of the biggest is the operation of his legal team.


Officially, of course, Milosevic has no lawyers: having declared that he fails to recognise the court, he conducts his own defence.


Yet behind the scenes, a powerful group of Belgrade lawyers is working for him. Milosevic is in constant contact with these men by phone, email and fax.


Some would argue that they’re more of a personal propaganda team than legal counsel, dealing more with attacks on the tribunal and its staff and backers than the intricacies of the legal jousting played out in The Hague's Courtroom Number One.


These lawyers – who include Zdenko Tomanovic, Dragoslav Ognjanovic, Momo Raicevic, Branimir Gugl, Veselin Cerovic - first started working for Milosevic when he was arrested on April 2, 2001 and charged with financial crimes.


He never went on trial, though. Instead, to the furious opposition of the then-Yugoslav president Vojislav Kostunica, Milosevic was spirited away to face war crimes charges at The Hague.


Milosevic kept his legal team in place. They replaced his former lawyer, Toma Fila, enjoying the utmost trust of the Milosevic family.


Fila had previously represented the ruling elite in Serbia on a range of sensitive, important matters.


He had had a particularly conspicuous role in cases associated with the tribunal, dealing with the first indictments against members of the Serbian security forces fighting the wars in former Yugoslavia.


His every trip to The Hague received enormous publicity and extensive coverage. Fila himself was very outspoken, questioning the tribunal's legality as well as claiming that it actually was an "anti-Serb" institution.


When Milosevic was arrested, his wife Mira Markovic and daughter Marija accused Fila of being the most responsible for Milosevic's surrender to the police. Fila thus lost their confidence and a chance to be a part of the defence team in The Hague trial.


Milosevic, who was charged with atrocities committed in Kosovo and Croatia as well as genocide in Bosnia-Hercegovina, declined to appoint any officially-recognised counsel.


"The accusations are false and monstrous, representing the culmination of absurdity and a brazen attempt at falsifying history," he said.


This marked a change from 1995 when, in signing the Dayton peace agreement to end the Bosnian war, he also recognised the legitimacy of the court, which was included in the text of the accord.


Belgrade legal observers believe Milosevic’s wife was instrumental in his decision to refuse counsel. "He needs no lawyer, he hasn't robbed a bank. This is a political trial," she is reported to have said.


Despite the defendant’s refusal to agree representation, The Hague named Zdenko Tomanovic and Dragoslav Ognjanovic as his counsel.


The rest of the legal team has no formal relations with the tribunal. This often confuses the public, as the role of these officials is not clearly defined.


"They are not authorised defence lawyers of Slobodan Milosevic, nor his legal counsels, and the court cannot punish them for inappropriate conduct," lawyer Srdja Popovic told IWPR.


Popovic believes they for the most part "consult with Milosevic what to say in public, thus assuming the role of his spokesmen".


Milosevic's lawyers frequently equate him with Serbia itself. "President Milosevic is not defending himself in The Hague. By presenting the truth, he is protecting both the state and national interests. His defence is an issue of paramount national importance," said Dragan Ivanovic, a member of the legal team.


They have also sought to ruin the witnesses’ credibility.


Momo Raicevic, for example, said there were several persons from the Interpol wanted lists who were actually "drug dealers, white-slave traffickers, mercenaries from the wars in Croatia and Bosnia, who suddenly turned into credible witnesses for [the tribunal's prosecutor] Carla Del Ponte".


The Milosevic lawyers have also tried to discredit the prosecution.


Raicevic said that the indictment for war crimes in Kosovo against Milosevic makes no mention of either Serb casualties or the attacks launched by ethnic Albanian guerrillas, the Kosovo Liberation Army.


He said this shows that the prosecutor tried to conceal the fact that a battle with extremists was taking place in Kosovo in 1998.


Although professional bar associations in Serbia have not raised their voice against such conduct, some lawyers have expressed their disapproval.


One, Dragoljub Todorovic, says their behaviour is “a disgrace to the profession” - especially since they identify themselves with the person charged with the most flagrant violations of human rights since the Second World War.


Srdja Popovic said the defendant’s lawyers should confine themselves to helping the defendant present his case and ensure that all his rights are respected.


Todorovic said, however, that many lawyers, like most people in Serbia, “believe in what Milosevic is saying in the dock”.


Milanka Saponja-Hadzic is a regular IWPR contributor.