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Serb Leader's Death 'Tragic for Victims'

Milosevic's death ends war crimes proceedings which many saw as crucial for the pursuit of justice in the Balkans.
By Michael Farquhar
After four years and endless delays caused by Slobodan Milosevic’s condition and wrangling over whether he should be allowed to represent himself in court, his trial recently appeared to be creeping towards its final stages.

Proceedings had been adjourned for the past week, so he could prepare to examine his next scheduled defence witness, Momir Bulatovic. A former president of Montenegro, Bulatovic is said by prosecutors to have been one of Milosevic’s partners in crime in the Nineties. His testimony had been hailed as an important part of the defence case.

With his death this week, the question of Milosevic’s legal culpability for the most brutal atrocities seen in Europe since World War Two will remain unanswered.

"It's the end of the case, it’s closed," said Avril MacDonald, an expert in international criminal law at the Hague-based Asser Institute. "He died an innocent man. Or, at least, we will never now know."

Christian Chartier, a spokesperson for the tribunal, said, "This is tragic for the truth... This is tragic for the victims."

In Bosnia and Croatia, officials spoke of Milosevic's terrible legacy and expressed anger and frustration that he'd escaped justice.

"He’ll be remembered because he managed to isolate Serbs and turn them against other peoples in [the] former Yugoslavia, and against the international community," the head of Bosnia’s joint presidency, Sulejman Tihic, told the FENA news agency.

The Croatian president, Stjepan Mesic, told the Hina news agency that it was a shame Milosevic hadn’t lived long enough to receive "a sentence which he deserved".

Milosevic faced 66 counts of war crimes spanning nearly a decade of conflicts which followed the collapse of the old Yugoslav order in the early Nineties.

The wars in Bosnia and Croatia saw widespread ethnic cleansing, including notorious atrocities such as the massacre of thousands of Muslim men and boys from the eastern Bosnian town of Srebrenica in July 1995.

Milosevic was accused of manipulating events in those countries behind the scenes, in particular supporting local Serb armies and paramilitary groups.

In Kosovo, in 1999, he was said to have taken a much clearer role in overseeing a campaign of persecution against the local Albanian population in which many died and hundreds of thousands fled their homes.

Prosecutors launched their enormously complex case against Milosevic on February 12, 2002, three years after he was first indicted. Since then, the proceedings have ground to a halt on a number of occasions as a result of his ill health.

Milosevic recently began to complain of new symptoms, including what he described last month as "a thundering noise in my head". On that occasion, he also reported that the symptoms were getting worse.

In December, he asked for permission to be treated by specialists at the Bakulev Centre, in Moscow. The request was eventually denied last month by the judges hearing his case, who said they weren’t satisfied that adequate treatment was unavailable in the Netherlands. They were also unconvinced that, if released, he would return to The Hague to face the remainder of the trial.

On the day Milosevic died, the Russian Interfax news agency reported his brother, Borislav Milosevic, as saying that the Hague court had "full responsibility" for what had happened.

"We know the tribunal will be blamed, but the truth is the tribunal should not be blamed for his death," said Chartier, adding, "What would [treatment in Russia] have achieved?"

Chartier noted that the situation would become clear after an autopsy had been conducted, and that he was familiar with detail’s of Milosevic’s condition which he could not make public.

McDonald said that "any sensible person could hardly blame the tribunal" for Milosevic’s death, pointing out that the court "had no interest in this happening".

The latest figures showed that Milosevic had used up nearly 90 per cent of the 360 hours allotted to his defence, in line with the time it took prosecutors to present their case against him.

In December, judges decided against splitting the charges against Milosevic relating to the Kosovo conflict from the rest of his case. The accused had devoted the vast majority of his defence to addressing these particular allegations. Amid concerns about the length of the trial, it had been suggested that breaking up the proceedings might at least allow a judgement to be issued on that part.

Just one week before Milosevic’s death, Milan Babic, a former president of the self-declared Serb republic in what is now Croatia, committed suicide in his cell in the Hague tribunal’s detention unit.

He was serving a 13-year sentence after pleading guilty to persecuting Croats in 1991 and 1992, and had returned to The Hague to testify against a fellow Croatian Serb politician, Milan Martic.

Babic’s death had cast a pall over the tribunal in the past week, as prosecutors struggled to come to terms with the loss of an individual who had provided important testimony in a number of trials and was slated to testify in others.

During Babic’s appearance in the witness stand in the Milosevic trial back in 2002, the former Yugoslav president insulted him profusely.

Milosevic’s death will raise questions about the future of the tribunal, which is already under pressure from the United Nations Security Council to wrap up its work over the next few years.

"In the history of the tribunal, [the Milosevic trial] will be seen as the missing link," said McDonald.

Mike Baresic, a political scientist who has acted as a consultant to several Hague defence teams on the history of the Balkans conflicts, said the latest development guaranteed that the tribunal "will now unquestionably go down in history as a failure".

Edgar Chen, legal liaison for the Coalition for International Justice, noted, however, that the four years of proceedings which came to an end this weekend should not be dismissed. "So much has been driven to the surface by the Milosevic trial," he said. "It’s there for the historical record."

Chartier stressed that even though Milosevic’s trial was important, its sudden and unexpected conclusion does not signal the end for the court. "This is not a Milosevic tribunal," he said.

Michael Farquhar is an IWPR reporter in London. Janet Anderson is the director of IWPR’s International Justice Programme.

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