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Friday, 22 February, 2002, 23:59 GMT
Milosevic surprises prosecution
Slobodan Milosevic
Milosevic's remarks were "forceful and sarcastic"
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By Angus Roxburgh
BBC Europe correspondent
line

There were moments during the past week at the trial of Slobodan Milosevic when you could see the panic ripple across the face of Carla del Ponte, chief prosecutor at the war crimes tribunal.


On this week's record, Ms del Ponte and her colleagues will scarcely feel they can relax.

Presumably the Swiss prosecutor - dubbed "feisty" by the world's press - had never expected an easy run.

But Mr Milosevic's refusal to recognise the tribunal's legitimacy or appoint a defence lawyer might at least have given her hope that her witnesses would have an easy time.

As Milosevic fiercely cross-examined them, however, and Judge Richard May refused to allow the lead investigator to testify at all, she saw the trial turn into a real fight, with no guarantee that she, and not Mr Milosevic, will wind up the victor.

Everyone was taken aback by Milosevic's performance.

Exhortations

After his rambling three days of opening remarks, his Perry Mason act was brilliant: cogent, forceful, sarcastic, well-informed - and yet punctuated by reminders that however intensely he may be taking part in it, he still does not recognise the tribunal.

"There's a truckload of documents relating to the indictment in a room at my prison cell," he said.

"But I have no intention of reading them!"

Even the schoolmasterly Judge May, world-weary though he always sounds, treated him with all the respect normally given to defence counsel.

Mr Milosevic questioned the first witness for about three times as long as Ms del Ponte had, with only a few exhortations from the bench along the lines of: "Let's move on to another subject, Mr Milosevic."

Emotion and shock

Even that often sounded like the judge admitting he needed no more convincing on the point the accused-cum-defence-counsel was trying to make.

When Mr Milosevic claimed that the week's schedule had been changed at short notice, with an unexpected Thursday afternoon session which clashed with a planned visit by his wife, the judge instantly agreed to cancel the session.

Carla del Ponte
Del Ponte has used shock rather than killer arguments

Let Milosevic never complain he has not been given a fair trial.

The judge's refusal to hear testimony from Kevin Curtis, the prosecution's investigator who had gathered more than 1,000 witness statements from crime scenes in Kosovo, because they were "based on hearsay", was another blow to Ms del Ponte.

She herself, both in her opening statement and in the pre-trial hearings, has tended to employ emotion and shock rather than killer arguments.

Accusing Mr Milosevic of crimes of "medieval savagery" is all very well, but it will not be enough to link him personally to the awful events that witnesses began to recount this week.

Force

That will require persuasive testimony from political witnesses, or documents that prove his complicity, black-on-white.

Milosevic showed how he intended to exploit any sloppy research or factual error mercilessly when the very first witness, an Albanian politician from Kosovo, Mahmut Bakalli, took the stand.

Replying to soft questioning from the prosecution he had happily described the Serbs' repression of Kosovo as "apartheid".

Milosevic forced him to define the word "apartheid".

"You should know, you're a professor," he said.

And his application of the concept to Kosovo did not, as they say, "stand up in a court of law".

The so-called crime-base witnesses may well be another matter.

Over the coming months they will describe the alleged crimes that took place in Kosovo under Mr Milosevic's rule.

He will find it harder to undermine their credibility.

But on this week's record, Ms del Ponte and her colleagues will scarcely feel they can relax.

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The International Bar Association's Mark Ellis
"I think he is doing a poor job of defending himself"
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