If this man is a war criminal, where is all the evidence? John Laughland, Mail on Sunday, July 2002

If this man is a war criminal, where is all the evidence?

John Laughland for the Mail on Sunday

There’s a scene in the great film Witness for the Prosecution, with Marlene Dietrich and Charles Laughton,when the witness apears in the court and gives exactly the opposite testimony from what was expected.

You would not know it from our media, which passed over the event in silence, but the same thing happened at the Hague recently in the most important war crimes trial since Nuremburg – that of the former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

One of the prosecutor’s star witnesses said precisely the opposite of what he was supposed to say, dealing what seemed like a fatal blow to a case which was already reeling from several previous blunders.

The star witness in question was Radomir Markovic, the former head of theYugoslav secret services.

Before he appeared in the witness box, the media universally hailed him as the insider who would finally give the clinching testimony that Milosevic had personally ordered  the persecution of the ethnic Albanian population of Kosovo.

This is the single issue which Nato uses to justify its otherwise illegal attacks on Yugoslavia: without it, the moral justification  for Nato’s war in 1999 completely disappears.

The urge to hear Markovic’s testimony was all the greater because  the prosecution’s last “star witness” had been a severe embarrassment.

Radomir Tanic had presented himslef as another “insider”, and had claimed he was actually present when Milosevic gave the genocidal order.

Under cross-examination, however, Tanic was shown to be an agent of the secret services of various Western countries, and to be so unfamiliar with the corridors of power that he could not even say on which floor of the presidential palace Milosevic’s office had been.

The embarrassment over Tanic was equalled  only by that caused  when an Albanian witness produced a list of names which, he alleged, was of Albanians whom the Serb police  were to execute.

On closer examination, the list turned out to be fake, littered with spelling mistakes.

Enter therefore Radomir Markovic, the secret police chief who knew more about what was going on in Yugoslavia than anyone else.

But, in a painstakingly detailed testimony lasting nearly three hours, he told the court that Milosevic had never ordered the expulsion of the Albanian population of Kosovo; that the former president had repeatedly issued instructions to the police and the army to respect the laws of war, and to protect the civilian population, even if it meant compromising the battle against Albanian terrorists.

The tribunal also heard that the mass exodus of Albanians during the Nato bombing was caused not by Serb forces, but, instead,  by the Kosovo Liberation Army itself, which needed a constant flow of refugees to maintain the support of Western public opinion for the Nato campaign.

‘Did you ever get any kind of report,’ Milosevic, who is conducting his own defence’, asked Markovic, ‘or have you ever heard of an order,to expel Albanians from Kosovo?’

‘No, I never heard of such an order. Nobody ever ordered Albanians from Kosovo to be expelled,’ Markovic replied.

‘Did you receive any information about any plan, suggestion or de facto influence that Albanians were expelled?’ asked Milosevic. Reply: ‘No, I never heard of such a suggestion to expel Albanians from Kosovo.’

Milosevic continued: ‘At the meeting you attended, is it true that completely the opposite is said, namely that we always insisted  that civilians be protected, and that they not be hurt in the process of anti-terrorist operations?’

‘Certainly,’ said the witness who, don’t forget, was appearing for the prosecution. ‘The task was not only to protect Serbs but also Albanian civilians’.

‘Is it not true that we tried to persuade the flow of refugees  to stay at home, and that the army and police would protect them?’ the former president asked.

Markovic replied: ‘Yes, that was the instruction and those were the assignments.’

‘Do you know that the Kosovo Liberation Army  told people to leave, and to stage an exodus?’

‘Yes,’ said Markovic. ‘I am aware of that’

The media greeted this stunning evidence with complete silence. Indeed, it even failed to report the most extraordinary assertion of all made by Markovic, namely that he had been subjected to duress by the new pro-Western authorities in Belgrade in order to make him testify against Milosevic.

Markovic claimed the new Minister of the Interior in the Western-backed government in Belgrade had taken him out to dinner and offered him release from prison- where he had been incarcerated  for more than a year now – anda new identity in a country of his choice, if he would agree to testify against his former boss at the Hague.

As Milosevic tried to point out in his cross-examination – until he wasinterrupted by the judge, that is – it clearly falls under the terms of the United Nations’ definition of ‘torture’ to imprison someone in order to force them to co-operate.

Markovic also alleged that the Tribunal’s own prosecutors had falsified and embellished  the written  statement he had given them.

These were amazing allegations. With them, the whole prosecution case seemed to crumble.

But even more stunning was the reaction  of the British presiding judge, Sir Richard May. A judge is supposed to be a neutral arbiter between the prosecution and the defence.

May, by contrast, has distinguished himself throughout the trail by his belligerence towards Milosevic and in particular for his habit of interrupting Milosevic, even sometimes switchhing off his microphone whenever the former Yugoslav leader’s cross-examination shows inconsistencies in a witness’s evidence.

As May listened to Markovic, he tried desperately to stop him making these allegations against the prosecutors and their allies in Belgrade.

When Markovic began to describe his ordeal at the hands of the new Yugoslav government, May silenced him, saying to Milosevic: ‘This does not appear tohave releance to the evidence which the witness has given here.’

‘We are not going to litigate here with what happened to him (Markovic) in Yugoslavia when he was arrested.’

And when Milosevic insisted  that the Tribunal’s  own investigators had falsified Markovic’s written evidence, May interrupted him tartly by saying ‘That is not a comment which it is proper for you to make.’

In judge May’s book, therefore, it appears to be irrelevant if the prosecution is lying, or if it is an accomplice to torture.

Judge Richard May is no stranger to political activity. Like the prosecutor,Geoffrey Nice, QC, he was a committed Socialist: he stood as a Labour Partycandidate for Finchley in the General Election in 1979, where his Conservative opponent  was none other that Margaret Thatcher.

But even this could not have prepared  anyone for the way he would react to Markovic’s shocking claims. These events have allowed critics to claim that the International Criminal Tribunal is a political kangaroo court in the hands of the West.

But political partiality can work both ways.

Tony Blair has been a vigorous supporter of a clone of the Yugoslav tribunal, the new International Court.

But why shouldn’t the new court be as apparently politicised as the present one? 

Plenty of anti-Western countries, such as Iran, Sudan and Zimbabwe, have signed the new ICC treaty. If they decide to prosecute Mr Blair for attacking Iraq, say, there is little to stop them – especially since the ICC defines ‘aggression’ as a war crime.

On his next trip abroad, therefore, Mr Blair might be wise to pack his toothbrush.