You don’t need 1,631 witnesses to reveal the absurdity of the Milosevic trial

This report in The Times, like so much of the coverage of the Balkan conflicts, takes it as read that all the allegations made by Western politicians were true and that the purpose of The Hague Tribunal was merely to convict and sentence the perpetrators.

The reality of the Milosevic trial was very different.  

Mr Milosevic was originally indicted by The Hague Tribunal in August 1995. At that time, the Tribunal had no evidence to support the indictment, they just wanted to ensure that he could not attend the Dayton conference.

Over the years other indictments were added.  In 2001 / 2, the prosecution applied to have the three major indictments, covering Kosovo, Bosnia and Croatia, to be combined into a single super-indictment which they hoped would give them a better chance of securing the verdict they wanted.

The Milosevic trial started in February 2002.  The prosecution case took up almost 4 years.  Even after the prosecution case had ended,  more than a decade after the original indictment, the prosecution was still seeking the evidence to support its charges. 

Of the few people who followed the trial closely throughout, few believed that the prosecution had got anywhere.  Endless, uncorroborated ‘eyewitness’ testimony, given anonymously via audio link, was the best they had to offer.   Forensic and DNA evidence was only given in summary to the court and should never have been admitted.  The prosecution search for the ‘smoking gun’ became a desperate quest to find anything.  In the end all they could do was rely on the concept of “Joint Criminal Enterprise”, which had been used to convict General Krstic, to try to tie the defendant into some kind of conspiracy.

Milosevic was not to blame for any of this.  He chose to defend himself because there was no one else he could trust.  His health was slowly destroyed by the extraordinary volume of work imposed on him by the court, aggravated by the constant  late delivery of vital papers.  The ICTY entirely failed in its duty of care to him.  The resident GP and nurse (neither of whom worked weekends) did little for him and the advice of the specialists he saw periodically was ignored by the court to the extent that, when told to reduce his hours in court,  actually extended them.  

The Milosevic trial was absurd because there was no case against him – it was four years of absolute nonsense.



You don’t need 1,631 witnesses to reveal the absurdity of the Milosevic trial – by Vanora Bennett

The Times 15 April 2004



IT WAS supposed to herald a brave new world of international justice. But the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia quickly descended into farce. And, to date, that is the only thing it has managed to do quickly.

The tribunal’s most prominent case, the trial of Slobodan Milosevic on 66 counts of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, has already plodded on for two years, through 300 witnesses and 30,000 pages of evidence – and we have only heard the prosecution case. In  June, Mr Milosevic will begin his own defence. It promises even more eye-closing longueurs. His witness wish-list, made public yesterday by a legal adviser, runs to 1,631 people: more than five times as many witnesses as the prosecution has called.

Not all of them will necessarily appear. Let’s assume that the judges decide that some of his requests – say, for Bill Clinton and Tony Blair to come to court – are just plain mischievous, and refuse them. On the other hand, fear that Mr Milosevic will cry foul (his years as Yugoslav President have left him versed in the dark arts of legalistic hair-splitting) makes it equally unlikely that they will cut the list any shorter than the prosecution roll call.

In theory, the ex-President of ex-Yugoslavia has 150 days in court to make his case. In practice, he could be at it for years, at a cost of $120 million a year; that is even if his latest plea for the genocide charges to be dropped because the prosecution hasn’t brought evidence should fail. And it is even if Mr Milosevic doesn’t exercise his right to a retrial because a judge has retired for health reasons (so far the owner of the most threatening silver bouffant in the former socialist world has prevaricated over this, refusing to comment on the “administrative matter” of a court whose legality he rejects). Nor does it take into account the 62-year-old prisoner’s poor health, which has endlessly delayed proceedings and is likely to continue.

In other words, there is precious little hope left that the tribunal will ever manage to dispense anything like the impartial and briskly efficient justice that was envisaged when it started work in 1993 – the first international court of its kind since the Nuremberg trials after the Second World War. It has been followed by international tribunals judging war crimes in Rwanda, East Timor and Sierra Leone.

The vision was that the court would bring the perpetrators of atrocities to book, making future potential dictators think twice before unleashing murder and mayhem on their peoples. Two years ago, when the Milosevic trial opened, the chief prosecutor was still optimistic enough to boast that the world was witnessing “the most powerful demonstration that nobody is above the law”. Today, such optimism is sadly out of place.

Two of Mr Milosevic’s most notorious ex-partners – Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic – are still at liberty, and a new, stroppier Serbian Government is refusing to hand anyone else over to the tribunal; while the UN is planning its exit from the Rwanda and Yugoslavia tribunals. 

No new trials can begin after 2008, so they can be wound up by 2010. Then the funding dries up. Who knows? Mr Milosevic may even be hoping that his witness list will last out the decade.

What went wrong? Mr Milosevic’s time-wasting tactics have not helped, but it was not to be expected that he would co-operate. The court’s failures have been a mix of inefficiency and trying too hard to be fair: letting the prosecution case go on too long, letting Mr Milosevic represent himself, letting witnesses be exposed to threat. In the tribunal’s defence, it is a pioneering institution swamped with information and making beginner’s mistakes. With time, the glitches might have been ironed out.

Yet time is what the UN tribunals no longer have. In a decade, they have become a cautionary tale. When Iraqis, preparing to try members of the Saddam regime, visited The Hague last month, it was to learn how to avoid the mistakes of the past.

The trial model now being pushed by Washington is the Sierra Leone court: with a budget directly controlled by the US and its allies, a short three-year mandate and a limited aim to try up to 20 defendants accused of the worst atrocities. This will be even more likely to provoke cries of “victor’s justice” than the UN tribunals. But in the trade-off between efficiency and impartiality, efficiency is winning. 

Anyone who preferred the grander vision will find this sad, but it is hard to go on having faith in a justice system whose wheels grind so slow that they never get to grind exceeding small.