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.
"The death of Slobodan Milosevic a few weeks before the completion of his trial will prevent justice to be done in his case," Carla Del Ponte, the chief war crime prosecutor, said in a statement issued by her office Saturday. "However, the crimes for which he was accused, including genocide, cannot be left unpunished. There are other senior leaders accused of these crimes, six of them still at large."
The war crimes tribunal has indicted 161 people over the past 11 years. Of the six indictees at large, the most prominent include former Bosnia Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic and Gen. Ratko Mladic, charged with genocide for their roles in the massacre of an estimated 8,000 Muslim men and boys in July 1995 in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica.
"This is exactly what the judges have feared all along," said Edgar Chen, legal liaison to the war crimes tribunal for the Washington-based watchdog group, Coalition for International Justice. "That the trial wouldn't be complete and there would be no verdict. . . . They knew the fragile state of his health."
Chen, who has monitored long stretches of the trial from behind the bulletproof glass that separates the courtroom from the public, said the trial has been drawn out partially because of the judges' sensitivity to Milosevic's health. Courtroom sessions have been conducted only three days a week to allow Milosevic sufficient time to rest and prepare his presentations. Milosevic, who has a law degree, has been acting as his own attorney.
During heated courtroom debate, Milosevic's high blood pressure often has been evident in the reddened color of his face, intensified by his snowy white hair. Chen said in recent weeks Milosevic's voice had become "more scratchy and hoarse" than usual.
When the judges on Feb. 24 rejected Milosevic's plea for medical treatment in Moscow, the former Yugoslav leader replied, "I consider this a highly unjust decision," Chen said his notes from that session show. He added that presiding Judge Patrick Robinson "cut him off and said, 'I am not going to consider this.' "
Milosevic's death was reported less than a week after one of his former Croation Serb rebel leaders, Milan Babic, committed suicide in his cell at the same tribunal detention center where Milosevic was housed. Babic, who suffocated himself using a plastic bag and a belt, had testified against Milosevic and was scheduled to appear in the trial of another Croation Serb. He was serving a 13-year sentence.
"In The Hague, Serbs are not treated like human beings," said Zoran Andjelkovic, a leader of Serbia's Socialist Party, which Milosevic once headed. "What's happening in that court now that two Serbs have died consecutively in prison?"
Milosevic "has a history of suicide in his family -- both his parents -- but as far as he was concerned, his attitude to me was quite the opposite from that," Steven Kay, a British attorney appointed by the tribunal to assist Milosevic, told BBC television. "He was determined to keep fighting his case."
Milosevic's unexpected death provoked shock but no mass outpourings of grief in Belgrade, the capital of the former Yugoslavia from where he served as president of Serbia until he was overthrown by a popular uprising in 2001. State-run television broadcast classical music between news updates and other stations ran films about the Balkan wars and Milosevic's life.
The government of Serbia limited its statements to offering condolences to the Milosevic family and his Socialist Party. But Justice Minister Zoran Stojkovic charged that Milosevic's death proved that war crimes detainees at The Hague did not receive adequate medical care. "Milosevic's death has shaken me as a person," Stojkovic said.
On Belgrade's streets, smatterings of sympathy alternated with large doses of indifference.
Marko Kraljevic, 63, a passenger on Bus 31 near Belgrade's Hotel Slavija, said Milosevic was a victim of the Hague system. "It clawed his eyes and soul out," he said. "It's amazing a man his age could endure such abuse for so long."
But Zoran Knezevic, owner of the Malt cafe on Branicevska street, said he felt no sympathy. "Milosevic was guilty for ruining and bankrupting our country, for drawing us into war," Knezevic said. "He is guilty for everything that befell us for 10 years. For these crimes I wish he had been tried here and gotten the severest penalty."
Across the Balkans, civilian victims and wartime rivals expressed regret that Milosevic died before the tribunal reached a verdict.
"We're sorry because he will never face legal consequences for his deeds," said Hajra Katic, a member of the Mothers of Srebrenica, a group of women seeking justice for the 1995 massacre in Srebrenica. "However, it seems that he finally faced the God's will."
"For the victims and truth and justice, it would have been better if he lived to the end of the trial," said Sulejman Tihic, a Muslim member of the Muslim-Serb-Croatian inter-ethnic presidency of Bosnia. Bosnia has sued the entire nation of Serbia for war crimes, a case that has just begun in the International Court of Justice, a separate court in The Hague.
In Croatia, a country that was sometimes at war with Serbia and sometimes participated in its efforts to carve up Bosnia, President Stjepan Mesic issued a written statement: "It's a pity that Milosevic did not live through the trial and get his deserved sentence."
The U.S. State Department issued a short statement acknowledging Milosevic's death that read in part, "Milosevic was the principal figure responsible for the violent dismemberment of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Milosevic's rule has long ended, and the United States supports a future for the Serbian people of peace, security, prosperity and greater integration with the Euro-Atlantic community.
Williams reported from Rome. Correspondent Peter Finn in Moscow, special correspondents Rade Maroevic and Joan McQueeney Mitric in Belgrade, and staff writer Glenn Kessler in Washington contributed to this report.