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Toxicologists: No Sign Milosevic Poisoned

But preliminary report by Dutch experts leaves many questions unanswered.
By Michael Farquhar
Toxicologists working on behalf of the Dutch government have found no sign that former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, who was found dead in the Hague tribunal’s custody last weekend, was poisoned.



In a preliminary report made public on March 17, the Dutch specialists also said they had found no traces of rifampicin – an unprescribed antibiotic, known to counter the effects of treatment that Milosevic was receiving for high blood pressure – which was found in his system earlier this year.



In a letter sent to the Russian government just prior to his death – which an autopsy suggested was caused by a heart attack – Milosevic voiced suspicions that drugs were being slipped to him in an effort to destroy his health.



Speculation has also been rife that he was taking rifampicin in an effort to manipulate his condition and convince judges to grant his request for permission to travel to Moscow for medical treatment.



Controversy surrounding the matter has been compounded by the existence of indications from as early as 2004 that Milosevic had access to illicit medication and alcohol at the United Nations detention unit in the seaside resort of Scheveningen.



The latest report will do little to calm the debate, despite its finding that none of the prescription drugs present in Milosevic’s system following his death were “in toxic concentration”.



Since rifampicin disappears from the body quickly, the experts said the tests only suggested that he hadn’t been ingesting that particular drug in “the last few days” before his death.



At a press conference convened to announce the toxicologists’ findings, Judge Fausto Pocar, president of the Hague tribunal, told journalists that a team of Russian pathologists who had reviewed Milosevic’s autopsy report were satisfied that it had been conducted “at the highest level” and were “in full agreement” with the results.



He had also been informed, he said, that two Serbian pathologists who attended the procedure were of the same opinion.



Judge Pocar reiterated his “full confidence” in the professionalism of staff at the UN detention unit, including its commanding officer Timothy McFadden. He said frequent inspections of the facility by independent bodies had consistently found conditions there to be “of the very highest standard”.



Another external audit was due to begin in the coming week, he said, as part of an effort to ensure transparency.



But it is not only the detention unit staff who are at the centre of the row.



Material provided to the court by doctors from as early as August 2004 suggested that Milosevic had a medicine in his system used to treat anxiety, which was not amongst the drugs prescribed to him. When Milosevic was asked about this drug, he apparently denied taking it.



Since Milosevic’s death, two anonymous court officials have told the Associated Press news agency that in more recent times, nothing had been done after McFadden himself warned the tribunal that he could not guarantee the accused’s health after medication and alcohol were found to have been smuggled into his prison cell.



The problem apparently stemmed from the fact that, in order to allow him to prepare his defence case, Milosevic had access to facilities including a telephone and a private room where he could meet with witnesses to discuss their testimony.



Judge Pocar acknowledged at the latest press conference that the 70-odd witnesses who met with Milosevic were “obviously” not subject to the same rigorous searches that other visitors faced.



The press conference ended with a string of forceful questions from journalists demanding to know what had been done in response to the indications that Milosevic’s detention regime was dangerously lax.



Tribunal registrar Hans Holthuis insisted that in the wake of the August 2004 findings, Milosevic was under “constant and effective scrutiny”.



Asked about the court’s response to the discovery of rifampicin in a blood sample originally taken from Milosevic on January 12, Holthuis said the results had “only recently come to our attention”.



Transferring the information, via the registry, to the judges overseeing his trial had been done “immediately”.



But because the initial report had taken “some time” to come through “there were no actual activities undertaken”.



An inquiry into Milosevic’s death is currently being led by the court’s vice president, Judge Kevin Parker, who has reported that some of the issues involved could take weeks to examine.



Additional information from the Dutch toxicologists is expected at the end of next week.



Michael Farquhar is an IWPR reporter in London.

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