The Milosevic Trial

The Milosevic trial was the longest criminal trial in history, having lasted for four years from February 2002 until Milosevic’s death in his cell on the morning of Saturday, 11 March 2006.

By the end of the trial, the transcripts ran to just under 50,000 pages and nearly 300 witnesses had testified.  The filings, exhibits, documentation, DVDs and videos presented at the trial ran to a total of more than 1.2 million pages.  If a person  sat down and tried to read all this material, reading at the rate of one page a minute, eight hours a day, 365 days a year, it would take him over seven years to accomplish his task. The cost of the trial was concomitantly enormous.  The budget of the ICTY was running at nearly US $300 million a year.  There are no official figures for the cost of specific trials, but one estimate is that 20 per cent of the ICTY’s costs went on the Milosevic trial, or some $20-30 million a year for six years.

The extraordinary length of the trail (which would have run considerably longer if Milosevic had not died) was down to the absence of specific evidence to enable the prosecution to mount a compelling case against Milosevic.  He faced many different charges but it became quite clear as time went by that, at the time Milosevic was  charged, the prosecution was certainly not in a position to produce the evidence to justify them.  The lead prosecutor, British barrister Geoffrey Nice, pursued a meandering course, apparently hoping that an accumulation of witness testimony would make his case for him.  If this was the strategy, it certainly failed: the vast majority of witnesses  were ‘protected’, giving their evidence anonymously and, in many cases, entirely out of the court’s vision.  This of course made cross-examination of the witnesses very difficult for the defence, because they had no information about the witnesses; but it also served, even for a highly partisan court, to dilute the impact of testimony – particularly as the court frequently saw clear indications of witness coaching.   In a 3-hour BBC documentary broadcast in 2007, Geoffrey Nice lamented that it was very difficult to gauge the number of witnesses he should call to convince the court of Milosevic’s guilt: in reality, his problem was that the cumulative effect of his witnesses never came close to providing the decisive evidence the court needed.

After more than four years, many of those who had followed the case felt that the prosecution had made hardly any progress in making a case against Milosevic, despite rewriting the indictments against him and using every power they had to limit the effectiveness of his defence.  Given the opportunity, Milosevic proved to be exceptionally capable in running his own defence, regularly outperforming the prosecution in cross-examination, despite the best efforts of the presiding judge Richard May to fustrate his efforts with interruptions, which often included the switching-off of Milosevic’s microphone when he was speaking.  When cross-examining William Walker, the UN Peace Ambassador who had announced the so-called Racak massacre in Kosovo to the world, May interrupted Milosevic no less than 70 times, but Milosevic still managed to make considerable headway.

In the months before his death, Milosevic’s health sharply deteriorated.  Unlike the prosecution, he had to depend on his own efforts to plan and develop his defence because he could not be certain that he would be safe in accepting assistance from the court-appointed amici curiae lawyers who were offered to him in this capacity.  Spending long days in court, followed by long evenings preparing for upcoming witnesses was bound to take a heavy toll on a man with long-standing heart problems.  When the prison doctors said he should do a maximum of 3 days each week in court, trial progress slowed even further.  The court was minded to overrule Milosevic’s right to conduct his own defence and appoint the two amici curiae lawyers, Stephen Kay and Gillian Higgins, to take over.  They vigorously contested this.  The position remained unresolved when Milosevic unexpectedly died.

It had been a foregone conclusion that Milosevic would be found guilty and sentenced to a long term of imprisonment.  Although the prosecution was clearly very worried that, even after 4 years, it had failed to make a case, few doubted that a guilty verdict would be returned on many, if not all, of the charges.  Speaking some years later at a conference in London, Sir Geoffrey Nice QC was asked whether he believed Milosevic was guilty.  Nice replied that he considered Milosevic was “innocent at the time of his death”.