See no evil

As prosecutors present graphic evidence of Balkans atrocities, accused war criminal Slobodan Milosevic yawns and looks away and calls his trial "illegal."

Published February 15, 2002 12:44AM (EST)

In his first opportunity to speak to the courtroom since his historic trial opened here on Tuesday, Serbian former strongman Slobodan Milosevic chose to ignore the harrowing evidence of Balkans atrocities that prosecutors have presented in graphic detail over the past two days. Instead, Milosevic asserted that the United Nations war crimes trial is illegitimate, and that his arrest and extradition by Belgrade authorities seven months ago was illegal. His show of defiance was reminiscent of the bluster and refusal to acknowledge reality that marked Milosevic's negotiations with Western peace envoys during the 10-year Balkans war.

"I challenge the very legality of this tribunal," Milosevic said, speaking from his bulletproof glass-enclosed trial chamber, flanked by two policemen. "This tribunal does not have the competence to try me. My extradition violated the constitution of Serbia and Yugoslavia."

"You have failed to take this into account," Milosevic told the presiding judge, Richard May, referring to his extradition here by Belgrade authorities on June 28 of last year. "You are duty bound to call hearings into my unlawful arrest. I was brought here on the basis of a crime being committed."

Milosevic also accused the court of being biased against him.

"Your prosecutors have already proclaimed my sentence and judgment," Milosevic said. "Your prosecution has orchestrated a parallel trial of me through the media -- a parallel lynch process."

After listening to his protests for a few minutes, Judge May interrupted Milosevic to say the court had already considered his arguments, made in several pretrial hearings, and dismissed them.

"Your views about the tribunal are completely irrelevant," May, a British jurist, said, adding that the court had responded in writing to Milosevic's earlier demands that the court review the legality of his arrest and extradition, but Milosevic has refused "to bother" to read any of the court documents, including even the indictments against him.

Milosevic's comments came after prosecuting attorneys had finished their own lengthy presentation, displaying before the court a gruesome gallery of images and descriptions from the wars in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo. The court heard and saw evidence of forced expulsions by Yugoslav soldiers and Serbian police; mass killings of men, women and children; rape of Muslim and Albanian women; and the destruction of mosques, homes and livestock -- all aimed at "cleansing" parts of the Balkans of the non-Serbian. Prosecutors also charged today that war-crimes investigators in Kosovo had discovered a systematic effort by Serbian forces to cover up massacres by digging up many of the bodies of those they killed, removing them in refrigerator trucks, and reburying them in mass graves in Serbia. In the months since Milosevic was removed from power in October 2000, the new authorities in Belgrade have discovered the bodies of hundreds of murdered Kosovars in mass graves on Yugoslav army bases near Belgrade's airport and in a refrigerator truck dumped in the Danube River in eastern Serbia.

Prosecuting attorney Dirk Ryneveld described what happened after Yugoslav soldiers and Serb police surrounded one extended family's compound in the Kosovo village of Meja, near the southwestern Serbian city of Djakovica, in April 1999.

"Women and children were sheltering in the basement," Ryneveld told the court, displaying an aerial photograph of the village and pointing out the building under which the women and children hid. "Armed men came and ordered them upstairs. One gunman shot the group of 17 women and 10 children. But one child, a 10-year-old boy, survived. He could see that his sister was alive too, under his mother's body, and he could hear her calling to him. But because the boy was shot, he was unable to lift his mother's body to save his sister. Serb soldiers set fire to that house.

"Imagine this boy's agony," Ryneveld said, "knowing that his sister was being burnt alive. That gruesome night, that boy saw his mother, all his sisters, his two aunts, his cousins, and their friends murdered."

As Ryneveld spoke of the killings at Meja, Milosevic looked on, without the slightest trace of emotion or concern. Indeed, at points during the prosecution's testimony today, he could be seen yawning into the back of his hand. During the prosecution's showing of a video made by a doctor who had survived a massacre of 127 Kosovars in the village of Izbica, Milosevic seemed to be looking down, as if he were refusing to see the grim pictures of dead elderly men, women and children, some with their walking sticks and canes next to their bodies, splayed out in a field.

Ryneveld also described how eight bodies, out of of 340 people reported missing from the village of Meja, were later discovered in a mass grave near Belgrade.

"So piece by piece, the jigsaw puzzle is becoming clearer," Ryneveld continued. "Kosovar civilians were murdered and buried. Then an organized attempt was made to move the bodies and put them elsewhere."

Ryneveld showed the courtroom a photo of a white refrigerated truck that was found by a Serbian policeman, sunk in the Danube River in eastern Serbia, filled with 80 bodies of Kosovar Albanians. In the photo, one can see the shoes of corpses hanging out the back of the truck doors.

"This evidence points to an attempted coverup, to hide the bodies 'where they won't be found,'" declared Ryneveld. "The architects of this coverup failed miserably."

Ryneveld also described the alleged massacre of 47 members of the Berisha family of the Kosovar village of Suva Reka on March 26, 1999. "Their ages ranged from 12 months old to 81 years old. One of those killed was a 24-year-old woman who was eight months pregnant."

Prosecutors also asserted today that Serbian forces under Milosevic's command engaged in a much more systematic practice of rape than had previously been reported in Kosovo. The reason this has not been widely reported, Ryneveld suggested, is due to the tremendous stigma the rape victims felt in their communities. "Some women and girls have not told their families," Ryneveld said, describing how the court would protect the identities of some rape victims who testify. "It takes great courage for them to come forward"

In one case, Ryneveld said, "Witnesses described how soldiers executed a group of 17 Kosovar men, and then selected some 50 women and girls, who were raped in front of the rest of the group."

In another case described by the prosecution, eight women and girls who had been kept in a shed by Yugoslav army soldiers were found dead at the bottom of the village well.

Ryneveld said the rapes, like the widespread destruction of mosques and other monuments to Albanian culture that took place during the war, were a form of systematic ethnic and religious persecution against Albanians practiced by Yugoslav forces.

But if prosecutors hoped Milosevic's defiant posture would be shaken by the grisly evidence of his forces' crimes, they were disappointed. Milosevic did not acknowledge a single point made by the prosecution over the past two days, and instead continued to insist that the trial itself was illegal.

Instead of defending himself against the 66 charges of war crimes that U.N. prosecutors have leveled against him, Milosevic, who has refused to appoint a defense lawyer and insisted upon defending himself, has signaled that he plans to attempt to try NATO and the West in his trial.

Zdendko Tomanovic, a Serbian legal advisor to Milosevic, told journalists after the proceedings today that the accused war criminal would open his defense tomorrow by playing a videotape "showing what really happened in Yugoslavia for the past 10 years." Milosevic and his supporters contend that he is being persecuted by the international community because he attempted to defend Yugoslavia from Western aggression and attempts to break up and overrun the country.

While Serbs overthrew Milosevic in October 2000 after he refused to accept his loss in presidential elections, many in his homeland agree with his claim that the West and the war crimes tribunal are biased against the Serbs, and that the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999 was a war crime in itself. Many of Milosevic's statements to date seem intended to win sympathy from Serbs back home, rather than to advance his legal defense.

Milosevic also has drawn defenders to his trial here from the West, including a group associated with former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who is a longtime critic of U.S. foreign policy; Jacques Verges, the French former lawyer for the accused Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie; and Canadian attorney Christopher Black. The motley group has held a series of press conferences in this sleepy Dutch city, claiming some of the video footage the prosecution has shown, such as pictures of emaciated Bosnian Muslim men allegedly held by Bosnian Serb troops at Trnopolje concentration camp in 1992, are fakes.

But human rights groups attending the trial claim Milosevic's refusal to acknowledge the charges laid against him could backfire.

"Milosevic's tirades will grow tiresome in the face of the evidence," said Richard Dicker, director of international justice programs for Human Rights Watch, a New York-based organization. Dicker is in The Hague observing the trial. "If all Milosevic can do is say, 'I am here illegally and I am a victim of NATO,' if he can't do any better than that in the face of this horrific evidence of human carnage, then I think that will boomerang on him. Because at the end of the day, people are going to be asking, 'Why doesn't this guy have anything to say about the evidence being presented against him?'"

Dicker also says there is no substance to Milosevic's allegation that the U.N. war crimes court is illegitimate. "This court was established by the United Nations Security Council in 1993. It is clearly part of the Security Council's authority to maintain international peace and security -- and establish this kind of court. Under international law, the authorities of Yugoslavia, as a member state of the United Nations, had an overriding obligation to cooperate with this court."

"I think part of the picture Milosevic is trying to paint --- that here he is in the courtroom, all by himself, with this team of four prosecutors all focusing on him, and, my gosh, he's the poor David to this Goliath -- nothing could be further from reality," Dicker added. "He's in there by himself because he made the decision he did not want legal counsel. He chose to represent himself because he realized that he might convey a more sympathetic image to public opinion in Belgrade."

Political analysts in Belgrade have long observed that Milosevic is a brilliant tactician, but a disastrous strategist. In this case too, as in previous wars, Milosevic seems intent on winning some early public relations battles, but doing little to contribute to his long-term defense. Like the Balkans wars he's accused of inciting, Milosevic seems determined to take on the international institutions he decries as illegitimate, only to ultimately concede no contest.

By Laura Rozen

Laura Rozen writes about U.S. foreign policy and the Balkans crisis for Salon News.

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