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Tuesday, 10 September, 2002, 11:37 GMT 12:37 UK
Milosevic proves a slippery customer
Slobodan Milosevic
Milosevic has performed well, say observers

"Good morning your honours, case number IT0254T, the prosecutor versus Slobodan Milosevic."

So began the trial of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, brought before the war crimes tribunal in The Hague to answer for his conduct in power.

The charges, 66 of them, including genocide, could not be more serious.

The former Yugoslav president has not been cowed. From the start, Mr Milosevic has been a tricky defendant to deal with.


Tribunal officials insist that, despite Mr Milosevic's refusal to recognise the legality of the trial, he has been drawn into the legal process.


"How do you plead to that, guilty or not guilty?" presiding judge Richard May asked, on day one.

"This indictment is the second act of the crime committed against my people," was Mr Milosevic's reply.

And on Mr Milosevic went. Until Judge May cut the defendant's microphone.

"Mr Milosevic, we have made the position clear, this is not the time for speeches, it is the time for you to enter a plea," he told the defendant in his his dry, clipped, weary voice.

That was just one of many impatient exchanges between Judge May and Mr Milosevic over the seven months of this trial.

Tribunal officials insist that, despite Mr Milosevic's refusal to recognise the legality of the trial, he has nonetheless been drawn into the legal process.

'Brave face'

"He has been engaging vigorously every day in court in cross-examining witnesses and challenging the prosecution's case so he has in a sense entered into battle with the prosecution, and that we think is a healthy thing," said tribunal spokesman Jim Landale.

But some trial-watchers suggest that the tribunal may be putting a brave face on events.

Judge Richard May
Judge May has clashed with his tricky defendant
The ex-president is playing a calculatedly awkward game, says Richard Dicker, who has been following the case for Human Rights Watch.

"Mr Milosevic is not presenting a legal defence to the charges he is facing, but actually launching a political offence and I think in fairness it has put a terrific strain on the tribunal," Mr Dicker said.

And where there is strain for the tribunal, there is even greater difficulty for the prosecution.

They have to prove command responsibility for the crimes committed, or at the very least that Mr Milosevic should have known what was happening.

One of the strongest witnesses of the Kosovo indictment was the European Union's new envoy to Bosnia, Lord Ashdown. In March, Lord Ashdown recalled a conversation he had had with the then Yugoslav leader.

No 'smoking gun'

"I told him that in my view, if he were to continue with these operations, he would make himself indictable for war crimes because he was personally responsible for any further continuation after this meeting," Lord Ashdown told the tribunal.

But out of the nearly 200 prosecution witnesses, none has produced the decisive "smoking gun".


At this juncture, it is Milosevic who has the upper hand

Dutch law expert
Gerard Strijards
The man thought to be the prosecution's star witness, the former head of the Serbian secret police, appeared in July, and said that Serbian forces had strict orders to protect civilians.

All of which has has led to claims that the prosecution has not produced the unanswerable case it promised.

"At this juncture, it is Milosevic who has the upper hand," said one Dutch expert in international law, Gerard Strijards.

"He is teasing the court to the limit - you can see it in the face of Judge May. The way Milosevic has conducted the examinations, the way he has brought forward constantly his point of views, he is playing his role very well."

And the ex-leader has not yet even begun his formal defence. That will come after the Bosnia and Croatia indictments, which will be next to be heard by the tribunal.

But the Kosovo indictment was thought to be the strongest part of the prosecution case.


At The Hague

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26 Aug 02 | Europe
05 Oct 00 | From Our Own Correspondent
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