Milosevic Found Dead in Prison

A supporter of Slobodan Milosevic kisses a poster of the ousted Yugoslav leader at a support-group headquarters in Belgrade. Milosevic faced charges before a U.N. tribunal for atrocities committed in the Balkan wars during the 1990s.
A supporter of Slobodan Milosevic kisses a poster of the ousted Yugoslav leader at a support-group headquarters in Belgrade. Milosevic faced charges before a U.N. tribunal for atrocities committed in the Balkan wars during the 1990s. (By Marko Drobnjakovic -- Associated Press)

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By Molly Moore and Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 12, 2006

PARIS, March 11 -- Slobodan Milosevic, the deposed Yugoslav leader who had spent the last four years on trial accused of genocide and crimes against humanity for his role in nearly a decade of Balkan wars, died Saturday in his prison cell near The Hague, according to the U.N. international war crimes tribunal.

A guard found Milosevic "lifeless on his bed in his cell," according to a statement issued by the tribunal. The statement said that Dutch police and a Dutch coroner had been summoned and that an autopsy and a full inquiry had been ordered. Court officials said there was no evidence that Milosevic, who suffered from high blood pressure and chronic heart problems, had committed suicide.

Milosevic's death ends the war crimes court's highest profile trial related to the Balkan atrocities of the 1990s -- conflicts that left an estimated 200,000 civilians dead and millions more displaced, as refugees or through forced relocations. Even though Milosevic, the first former head of state to stand trial for genocide, escaped the final judgment of the tribunal, his trial documented chilling details of the wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo in thousands of pages of official records, scores of recorded telephone conversations and hundreds of eyewitness accounts.

Milosevic and his Balkan wars dominated much of President Bill Clinton's foreign policy agenda and tested the resolve of the United States and Europe to act militarily to end a war involving "ethnic cleansing" on European soil. High-level U.S. envoys shuttled constantly between Washington and Belgrade, with Milosevic seen as both an instigator of the violence and the key player who could halt it. In 1999, with mounting reports of Serb atrocities against Kosovo Albanians, Clinton persuaded NATO partners to launch an air war against Serbian forces. That campaign lasted 78 days.

Funeral arrangements for Milosevic remained in disarray late Saturday night and threatened to sharpen the divide in Serbia between Milosevic's shrinking party sympathizers and his political opponents. Officials of his Socialist Party said he should be buried as a hero in Belgrade's central cemetery, while his opponents have demanded he not be buried with state honors. His wife, Mirjana Markovic, and their two children reportedly reside in exile in Russia. Markovic and the couple's son, Marko, are wanted on charges of abuse of power while Milosevic was in power and could be arrested if they return to Serbia for a funeral.

The 64-year-old Milosevic had frequently won trial delays to accommodate his fragile health. During a court session three weeks ago, Milosevic complained about a "thundering noise" in his head and asked judges to allow him to travel to Russia for medical treatment. The judges refused his request, but said Russian doctors would be allowed to treat him at the prison.

News of his death provoked caustic reactions from both supporters and opponents. Victims of atrocities committed under his rule during the disintegration of the Yugoslav republic complained that history had been cheated of final judgment on a man some critics called "the butcher of the Balkans."

"People didn't see him get what he deserved," said Arsim Gerxhaliu, a Kosovo Albanian forensics expert who has exhumed hundreds of bodies for identification and reburial since the 1998-99 Kosovo war.

Family members and sympathizers accused the war crimes tribunal of culpability in his death. "Complete responsibility for this lies on the international tribunal for former Yugoslavia," Milosevic's brother, Borislav, who lives in exile in Russia, told Russian news agencies.

Milosevic has been in court since February 2002, charged with 66 crimes including genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity during the 1991-95 war in Croatia; the 1992-95 conflict in Bosnia that ended with the first NATO airstrikes and a peace accord Milosevic signed in Dayton, Ohio; and finally the Serb crackdown in Kosovo, which ended again with a U.S.-led bombing of Milosevic's forces inside Kosovo and of infrastructure in Serbia.

Milosevic never formally acknowledged the authority of the war crimes tribunal and insisted on calling the judges "Mister," rather than "Your Honor." And he remained unrepentant throughout, always denying he had any knowledge of the crimes being committed by Bosnian Serb units in Bosnia, or Yugoslav federal troops in Kosovo. Prosecutors, meanwhile, used their lengthy presentation to show that Milosevic had direct "command responsibility," and either should have known what was happening, or received ample warning -- including from U.S. officials.

Court officials had said they had expected his trial to conclude in May and judges to issue a verdict by the end of the year.


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