Milosevic questions tribunal's legality

Thursday, February 14, 2002

THE HAGUE, Netherlands -- Faced with graphic images from a ruthless campaign of ethnic cleansing that prosecutors say he masterminded, Slobodan Milosevic lashed back Wednesday at the U.N. court, challenging its legality, in his first comments at his war crimes trial.

At the end of the second day of his trial for genocide and war crimes, the former Yugoslav president had his first chance to speak, and his brief exchange with the presiding judge was a harbinger of the defiance and rejection he is likely to adopt for the duration of the exhaustive trial.

"I challenge the very legality of this tribunal because it is not established on the basis of law," he said, after listening to the prosecution's often harrowing two-day recital of atrocities during a decade of war in the Balkans. "This tribunal does not have the competence to try me," he said.

Judge Richard May said the court had already ruled on the legitimacy issue, "as you would know if you had taken the trouble to read our decisions. Your views about the tribunal are now completely irrelevant, as far as these proceedings are concerned."

Milosevic, 60, faces a total of 66 counts of genocide and other war crimes during a decade of strife in the republics that once made up Yugoslavia. Each count carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. U.N. tribunals don't have a death penalty.

With less than 30 minutes left before a scheduled adjournment, Milosevic declined to begin his formal response to allegations that he was responsible for the deportation of millions of non-Serbs and the killing of hundreds of thousands during the wars in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo.

He was expected to begin his statement -- which could last a day or two -- today, and to continue to challenge the court's right to try him. He is expected to paint himself as a leader who tried to preserve the unity of his country.

Serb officials, meanwhile, called on war crimes suspects still in hiding to surrender, suggesting the government would step up cooperation with the tribunal.

Gruesome details of cases

Milosevic, the first head of state to be called to justice before an international tribunal, sat impassively through most of the day at the court in The Hague, showing little emotion as prosecutors called up photographs and video footage of the victimization of non-Serbs.

Senior trial attorney Dirk Ryneveld focused on the deportation of 800,000 Kosovo Albanians and the murder of hundreds of others by Serbian forces during the 1998-99 crackdown on Albanian rebels, which led to the 78-day NATO bombing of Yugoslavia.

The Kosovo case, the first of the three indictments on the court's agenda, "is about persecution and expulsion of civilians on a wide scale," Ryneveld told the three judges.

The Dutch lawyer singled out the story of a 14-year-old girl who was raped by a Serbian soldier in front of her parents. She will be called to testify.

He also recounted one incident on April 1, 1999 in the Kosovo town of Djakovica when he said gunmen opened fire on seven women and 13 children found hiding in a basement. A 10-year-old boy survived and is to also testify at the trial.

"He could hear that his sister was still alive under the pile of bodies, because he could hear her calling to him to save her. Because he was shot himself, he was unable to lift his mother's body to save his sister," Ryneveld said. The attackers then set fire to the house. "Imagine his agony and sense of helplessness, images of which still haunt him today, knowing that his sister was burned alive," he said.

Milosevic said the trial was unfair and that chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte has "already sentenced me" through "a parallel lynch" against him in the media.

He complained the prosecution had "fake" evidence.

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