Milosevic Opens His Defense Case by Going on the Offensive

Milosevic Opens His Defense Case by Going on the Offensive

Published: September 1, 2004

HE HAGUE, Aug. 31 - Now it was Slobodan Milosevic's turn to explain
himself. After hearing the prosecution case for 24 months, the former
Serbian leader began his defense on Tuesday against an extensive array of
war crimes charges, including genocide, stemming from the Balkan conflicts
of the 1990's.

He entered the courtroom at 9 a.m., a United Nations guard beside him,  and
his first concern as he settled into the dock seemed to be to reassure
himself that a large audience awaited. It did. The visitors' gallery,
separated from the court by bulletproof glass, was packed.

But instead of a defense, Mr. Milosevic, who is representing himself,
delivered a meandering history lesson that lasted four hours. Its thesis
was that the wars that led to the destruction of Yugoslavia and cost the
lives of tens of thousands were driven by a conspiracy of the Western
powers - he cited Germany, the United States and the Vatican as the chief
culprits. The main victims were the Serbs, who were only defending
themselves, he said.

The opening day of his defense, postponed half a dozen times for reasons of
health, also enabled him to attack NATO, neo-Nazis, Islamist fighters and
the war crimes tribunal here.

Remarkably, Mr. Milosevic never mentioned his own role in the lengthy
narrative. Looking rested after a six-month break and reading forcefully
from typed and handwritten notes, he dismissed the charges against him as
"unscrupulous lies'' and a "distortion of history.''

It was vintage Milosevic. He even began his address by demanding more than
his allotted four hours.

Judge Patrick Robinson reminded Mr. Milosevic that he had already taken
eight hours to give his version of events at the opening of his trial in
2002 and another three and a half hours when the second part of his
indictment began.

"This is your third bite at the proverbial cherry,'' the judge said,
ordering him to proceed. Nonetheless, Mr. Milosevic was granted 90 minutes
to speak on Wednesday.

It was a concession he took for granted. "Thank you" is not in Mr.
Milosevic's courtroom vocabulary.

The 63-year old former strongman, who was ousted from the Yugoslav
presidency in October 2000 by his own angry people, at no time addressed
the specific charges made by the United Nations prosecutors. Instead he
delivered a political defense, evidently intended for the Serbian public
back home and his place in history.

"He's feeling well and he is in a very good mood,'' said Zdenko Tomanovic,
a Belgrade lawyer and member of a team that is helping Mr. Milosevic
outside the courtroom. "He has waited more than three years for this
moment, to tell his story.''

Mr. Milosevic did much finger-pointing against Western governments, German
politicians, Bill Clinton and Pope John Paul II, who had supported
Slovenia's and Croatia's independence from Yugoslavia, moves that
precipitated the conflicts.

But there was barely a place in his discourse for the 200,000 people who
lost their lives or the several million who became refugees in the Balkans
wars. Referring to events of 1991, as Yugoslavia began to tear apart, he
said, "One mistake followed the other, and the price was in human lives.''

Later, he repeatedly emphasized a contemporary theme - terrorism - as
practiced by rebels in Bosnia and Kosovo. He said that in the early 1990's,
Islamic fighters flooded into  Bosnia from Afghanistan, Lebanon, Morocco
and Saudi Arabia "to support the first Islamic state in Europe.''

The Afghans, he said, came "armed with weapons supplied by the C.I.A.''
brought from Pakistan. Early in the war, he said, a group of 400 Hezbollah
fighters went to Sarajevo as instructors to the foreign Islamists.

After the session, one prosecutor said he had heard ''a few interesting new
details,'' but added that he was disappointed that the four-hour speech was
not a coherent set of arguments, but a rambling account laced with quotes
from historians, generals and reporters. There was no mention of the
large-scale ethnic cleansing of Bosnia or mass killings.

Instead, Mr. Milosevic said the West had created a smokescreen to hide its
own misdeeds, including NATO'S bombing of Serbia during the Kosovo crisis
of 1999. He also repeated a favorite theme, that the war crimes tribunal,
which was created by the United Nations Security Council, is not a
legitimate forum but rather a "propaganda instrument of NATO.''

Liljana Smajlovic, a political commentator for the Serbian weekly Nin who
has followed the proceedings, said a Serbian audience would recognize Mr.
Milosevic's version of history, but, she said, "It is skewed, just the way
the prosecution version of history was skewed."