Trial of Milosevic Holds Lessons for Iraqi Prosecutors

By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, October 18, 2005

THE HAGUE -- Three years and eight months into the war crimes trial of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, the courtroom still crackles with explosive outbursts.

"You know perfectly well those people were butchered!" prosecutor Geoffrey Nice shouted at a former Serbian police chief this month while questioning him about the deaths of more than 40 ethnic Albanians in the Kosovo village of Racak during the winter of 1999.

"This is preposterous!" shot back the witness, Bogoljub Janicevic, his wire-rimmed glasses sliding down his nose.

On the opposite side of the courtroom, on the fifth anniversary of his fall from power in Belgrade, the white-haired Milosevic sat impassively. But his face darkened several shades of red, as often happens when testimony heats up.

As Iraqi prosecutors prepare for the trial of former president Saddam Hussein, scheduled to begin in Baghdad on Wednesday, Milosevic's slow-moving case at the U.N. Balkans war crimes tribunal demonstrates the many pitfalls entailed in trying deposed leaders in a court of law: The defendants drag out their cases, they can intimidate witnesses, and any links to atrocities are usually concealed by layers of subordinates.

For the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia -- the first international war crimes court established since the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials after World War II -- the long-running Milosevic courtroom drama is both a cause of the toughest criticism the tribunal has received and a symbol of its greatest success.

"The slowness sometimes doesn't give us the best image," Theodor Meron, president of the 25-judge tribunal, said in an interview. "But this is truly an historic case."

Speaking of the Iraqi court, Meron said it would have to guarantee the rights of its famous defendant to be credible to the public: "Any court dealing with atrocities has to pay particular respect to due process. There can be no cutting corners."

Meron, who was born in Poland, spent four years in a Nazi prison camp as a youth.

The prosecution of Milosevic and 125 other people by the 12-year-old tribunal is creating a body of law that many legal experts say will serve as a guide for future war crimes tribunals worldwide. Iraqi judges and officials from war crimes tribunals newly established in Africa and the Balkans have consulted court officials recently.

The length and complexity of the Milosevic trial helped convince Iraqi prosecutors that they needed to concentrate on a few key events rather than attempt to cover the full range of alleged atrocities during Hussein's 24-year rule, legal experts and observers said.

Milosevic, 64, is charged with 66 counts of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity spanning the 1991-95 war in Croatia, the 1992-95 war in Bosnia and the 1998-99 Serb crackdown in Kosovo. He could face life in prison; the court does not impose the death sentence. He denies the charges.

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