Milosevic accused of thousands of murders as war crimes trial opens
THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — Slobodan Milosevic orchestrated the murders of thousands of people in a campaign of “savagery” with the sole goal of satisfying his all-consuming thirst for power, a prosecutor said Tuesday, opening the former Yugoslav president’s trial for war crimes.
Milosevic, the first head of state to face an international tribunal, listened impassively, occasionally jotting notes, as United Nations attorneys sketched a complex case spanning nearly a decade of horror in three Balkan countries.
The prosecution gave a first glimpse of a litany of agony — rape, torture, looting, expulsion and almost gleeful killing — that survivors will recount during a trial expected to last two years.
The trial is the biggest war crimes case since Hitler’s henchmen were brought before a military tribunal after World War II.
Milosevic, 60, faces a total of 66 counts of genocide and other war crimes in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo that killed thousands of people and displaced more than a million others. Each count carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.
In one massacre in Bosnia, said prosecutor Geoffrey Nice, Serb forces promised safety to 45 family members in a Red Cross vehicle, and instead locked them in a house and set it ablaze. “They were burnt alive, and the baby’s screams were heard for two hours before it, too, succumbed,” he said.
Milosevic is expected to give a spirited response Wednesday to the prosecution’s six-hour statement. He has refused to recognize the tribunal or appoint a lawyer, and has launched separate proceedings to fight his detention.
Millions of people across the Balkans watched the opening day on television. For some, like Munira Subasic, 63, in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica, a trial in the immaculate confines of the U.N. war crimes tribunal in the Netherlands fell short of expectations. “The Hague is too good for him,” said Subasic, who lost her only son, her husband and several other relatives in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre.
Opening a case that took years to prepare, chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte said Milosevic was consumed by his thirst for power.
“An excellent tactician, a mediocre strategist, Milosevic did nothing but pursue his ambition at the cost of unspeakable suffering inflicted on those who opposed him or represented a threat for his personal strategy of power,” she told the three robed judges.
All his actions were “in the service of his quest for power,” the Swiss prosecutor said, speaking a combination of French and English. Now and then Milosevic glanced and nodded at supporters among the packed public gallery behind a wall of bulletproof glass.
In previous court appearances, he refused to wear headphones providing him with the translation of proceedings into his native Serbian language. On Tuesday, a loudspeaker set up in front of his desk gave him no choice but to listen.
Milosevic’s actions introduced the phrase “ethnic cleansing” into common use. “Some of the incidents reveal an almost medieval savagery and a calculated cruelty that went far beyond the bounds of legitimate warfare,” she said in a 30-minute opening statement.
Using charts, maps and archive video clips, deputy prosecutor Nice recapped Milosevic’s rise to power in the late 1980 and early 1990s. The ousted leader, he said, manipulated an upsurge of Serb nationalism “to get as much as he could get away with and as much as he could keep.”
Nice said Milosevic “did not confront his victims. He was able to view what was happening from his high-profile office. If the prosecution case is right, he had these crimes committed for him.”
Zdenko Tomanovic, a Belgrade lawyer and spokesman for Milosevic, dismissed the prosecution’s opening statement as “political concoctions.” He complained that the court had wronged Milosevic by not allowing him sufficient time to prepare his defense.
In Belgrade, Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic said the tribunal will be faced with a “mammoth process” of huge importance. Djindjic, whose government handed Milosevic over to The Hague last June, emphasized that the U.N. tribunal, rather that a national Yugoslav court, is the right place to try such widescale crimes.
“I don’t want to judge whether the accusations are justified or not,” he said. “For us, it is most important that this is not a problem which burdens our country anymore.”
Outside the court, about 25 people held an anti-Milosevic protest behind police barricades. His supporters were even fewer.
“We want to get a little bit of justice in this life, but it’s not possible to have complete justice. How can you punish a man who destroyed thousands of families?” asked a Bosnian who identified himself only as Emir, fearing retribution against his family.
Meanwhile at a district court elsewhere in The Hague, Milosevic’s legal team sought an injunction to force the tribunal to allow them to have unmonitored meetings with their client to prepare a case in the European Court of Human Rights.
“Milosevic should be able to consult his lawyers,” said Nico Steijnen. “At this moment, he is completely isolated from his legal advisers.”
A lawyer for the state said the Dutch court had no jurisdiction over the tribunal. The judge promised a ruling in two weeks.