The long trial
September 9, 2004 | More from Don Murray
Don Murray is one of the most prolific of the CBC's foreign
correspondents, filing hundreds of reports - in French and English -
from China, Europe, the Middle East and the Soviet Union. He is
currently based in London as the senior European correspondent for CBC
During his 30 years with CBC, Murray has covered a multitude of major
stories, including the advent of perestroika and glasnost and the
collapse of the Soviet Union. He wrote A Democracy of Despots, a book
documenting that collapse and the rebirth of Russia. While in Berlin, he
covered the peace agreement ending the war in Bosnia and, in London,
covered the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and the peace agreement
in Northern Ireland. He authored Family Wars, a major feature article
for the International Journal paralleling the troubles in Northern
Ireland and the war in Bosnia. In recent years he has covered the wars
in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Four years ago a presidential election took place that ended in revolution and led to a landmark trial still in progress.
I am not talking about the American presidential election. Instead, think back to Serbia. This was the Serbia of Slobodan Milosevic. In 2000, just a year after NATO bombs had pounded him into submission, forcing him to allow NATO troops to take effective control of Kosovo, Milosevic was still in power and still convinced of his electoral inviolability.
He called a presidential election months earlier than he had to. His opponent was a dour professor, Vojislav Kostunica. To Milosevic's vast astonishment, early indications showed that Kostunica had won outright with more than 50 per cent in the first round of voting.
The Serbian strongman sat tight, ordering that the vote count be slowed down and the results kept secret. It didn't work. The marches began.
For 10 days, thousands, then tens of thousands, and finally hundreds of thousands of Serbs marched through the streets of the capital, Belgrade, and of other Serb cities, demanding that Milosevic step down. "He's finished" and "Slobodan, save Serbia, kill yourself," they chanted.
Finally they marched on the country's parliament and overran it. The police and the army announced they would respect the voters' verdict. And still Milosevic refused to concede. It was only 24 hours later that he appeared on television to confirm the obvious: he had lost and would now step aside. But he would continue as the leader of the opposition.
And he did...for seven months. Then he was arrested on charges of stealing state funds. Two months later Milosevic was handed over to the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. He was the Big Fish, the first former president of any country to appear before such a tribunal. He was charged with crimes of war, crimes against humanity and genocide for his part in the Balkan wars, in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s.
The Big Fish was to have a Big Trial. This would be the trial to rival and recall the Nuremberg trials, when senior Nazi leaders, from Hermann Goering and Rudolf Hess on down, were required to answer for the crimes committed by Hitler's regime.
The Big Trial has become the Long Trial. It began in February 2002. Only at the beginning of September 2004 did Milosevic begin his defence.
The marathon has already claimed a victim. The chief judge of the panel of three judges, Richard May, died this spring. Milosevic himself suffers from high blood pressure. There have been several postponements due to his uncertain health.
But on it goes. And as it plods on, there are mutterings in the corridors of The Hague that this is not the way it was supposed to be, that the great trial risks becoming a great farce. There are certainly farcical aspects to this trial. Milosevic now has a lawyer, two in fact. They were imposed on him at the beginning of September by the judges. They felt that his health wasn't up to waging his defence himself. The fact that he was refusing to take medicine to deal with his hypertension encouraged their decision.
But Milosevic refuses to speak to the lawyers, officially known as amici curiae friends of the court. He's made it clear they aren't his friends. "Defence through an imposed lawyer is a simple legal fiction," he said on the day the first defence witness was called to testify. "I insist you give me back my right to defence."
The judges said no, the initial questioning would be done by the lawyers. After that, Milosevic was asked if he had any further questions. Instead, he launched into another attack on the court for imposing lawyers on him. The chief judge cut him off, saying this did not seem to constitute a further question.
If there is an element of farce, it is because Milosevic wants there to be one. From the beginning he has denounced the trial as illegitimate. He refused to plead, he refused to sign court documents, he refused to read them. He is waging guerrilla combat in the courtroom and farce is a weapon.
He made that clear in his speech opening his defence: "Thanks to the nature and contents of this false indictment, the trial has turned into a simple and pure farce. The indictments are a sheer mutilation of justice."
He portrayed himself, as he had since the beginning of the proceedings, as the victim of an international conspiracy, not as the perpetrator of criminal wars in three states.
"The international community, led by the U.S.A., favoured Islamic fundamentalism in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo....In addition to everything else, crimes against Serbs are being committed in Kosovo with the assistance of the NATO-led coalition." It was only to protect Serbs, not to combat Croats or to exterminate Muslims that his forces fought, Milosevic said.
None of this should surprise. Both the worldview and the tactics are the same as when he held power. Almost from the moment he became the preeminent leader of what was then Yugoslavia, he began talking of the threats the other constituent nationalities posed for the Serbs. "We will not let them beat you," he told Serbs in 1989 after a riot in Kosovo involving Kosovar Albanians and Serbs. This became his slogan and his defence throughout the Balkan conflicts. It remains his defence today. He and the Serbs were only responding to provocation.
In the same way, his tactics in the dock mirror his tactics when in power. When faced with a crisis, he would stonewall and play for time, while unleashing rhetorical broadsides on his opponents.
And so he dominates what might be called the political trial, the trial that occasionally erupts into the headlines with a report on Milosevic's latest antics. He is playing to an audience at home and opinion polls show that more than half the people of Serbia still oppose the international tribunal.
Behind that, however, is the legal trial. Unlike the Nuremberg trials, prosecutors in the Milosevic case found there was almost no paper trail linking the former Yugoslav leader to the crimes committed in the wars. And so, for a year and a half, the prosecutors called witness after witness, trying to build chains of circumstantial evidence linking Milosevic to the war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in three wars. Now Milosevic and the lawyers appointed to defend him will have more than a year to try to rebut that evidence.
As a politician Milosevic had a reputation as a brilliant tactician and an abysmal strategist. He took power as the de facto leader of a multinational state of 30 million citizens. By the time he was pushed from power, his state had shrunk to 10 million people, battered by war and economic sanctions, a pariah nation in Europe.
His forces, or those he had supported, had won battles but had lost every one of the Balkan wars. The goal of Greater Serbia lay in shattered pieces in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo.
The question in The Hague is whether legal history will follow the example of political history. The answer, in the form of the judges' verdict, is still two years away.