Milosevic denies all guilt in Kosovo trial

As the second part of the trial of Slobodan Milosevic that began on September 26 enters its third week, there are still lingering doubts that the prosecution, in the trial’s first part that ended on September 11, had proved the charges of crimes against humanity and violations of the laws and customs of war that were allegedly committed by Serb forces during the 1999 Kosovo war. The former Yugoslav president was charged with a total of 66 counts over the wars that took place in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. Five of these counts – deportation, two counts of murder, forcible transfer and persecution on political, religious and racial grounds, that referred to events in Kosovo between January 1 and June 20, 1999 – were dealt with in the first part of the trial. Together with four others, Milosevic is accused of individually planning, aiding, instigating, ordering, committing or otherwise aiding and abetting a deliberate and widespread or systematic campaign of terror and violence directed at Kosovo Albanian civilians. Ninety-six days – and over 10,000 transcript pages – later, the prosecution had accumulated a mosaic of testimony and statements, some of it harrowing, but had not necessarily produced the «smoking gun» that tied Milosevic to the crimes. What the prosecution had to prove was that Milosevic intended to commit the crimes, or alternatively, that the crimes were «natural and foreseeable» consequences of the accused’s acts. Secondly, they had to establish the suspect’s de jure and de facto control over the army and police. Thirdly, they had to establish that the indictees «knew or had reason to know» that their subordinates had committed or were likely to commit such crimes, or had failed to take «necessary and reasonable measures to prevent such acts or punish the perpetrators.» All Milosevic had to do was to raise reasonable doubt. In the opening summary for the prosecution that started on February 12 and lasted two days, Senior Trial Attorney Geoffrey Nice gave a potted history of events leading up to and beyond the breakup of Yugoslavia. The prosecution’s difficulties were highlighted when he said Milosevic was «a man who would leave no traces if he could avoid them or who indeed destroyed traces of his control.» Trial Attorney Dirk Ryneveld, responsible for the Kosovo part of the indictment, pointed out that Milosevic, as commander in chief, had de jure control of the Yugoslav army (VJ) and after the declaration of war by Serbia on March 24, control of the Ministry of Interior police (MUP), which was subordinated to the VJ in time of war. He made it clear that the prosecution regarded the Kosovo events as «primarily a deportation case,» with killing serving the objective of driving out the population, of whom an estimated 840,000 fled. The indictment lists 13 deportation sites and 12 killing sites, and some 900 murders. The prosecution’s initial summary was succeeded by an even longer response (two and a half days) from Milosevic. He attacked what he called a Western conspiracy, an «ocean of lies and the product of propaganda» and produced videos and photographs of his own, a gruesome gallery of «carbonized bodies,» complete with names and places, allegedly victims of the NATO bombing. The main thrust of his defense was that he was combating terrorism. Albanian civilians had either fled the NATO bombing, or were forced or persuaded to flee by the ethnic Albanian rebel Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). Moreover, the Serb police and army comported themselves with «honor and chivalry,» and had strict orders not to fire on civilians, he averred. Witnesses Milosevic was an effective and ruthless cross-examiner. First witness Mahmut Bakalli proved no match for a lengthy cross-examination that displayed Milosevic’s grasp of events, though he scored points toward the end. But little the former communist said was germane to the events in question. Bakalli alleged that in an October 1997 meeting in Kosovo, the head of state security told him they had a «scorched earth» policy to destroy 700 Albanian populated settlements. One of the few relevant points in the clash, it remained on the level of assertion. Milosevic followed a standard line when questioning the Albanian witnesses, which was to ask them whether they had heard of KLA attacks in the vicinity, and to suggest they had fled NATO bombing. Witnesses to the crimes proper began their testimony on February 20 on the first incident related in the indictment, in which the village of Celina was surrounded by tanks and armored vehicles, shelled and burnt. Civilians were forced to come out of a nearby forest on March 28 and were marched to a nearby village, where the men were separated from the women and beaten, robbed, and had all their identity documents taken from them, according to indictment. In the nearby village of Nogavac, 8,000 civilians were ordered to leave from a mountain where they had sought shelter and «forcibly dispersed into nearby villages.» On April 2, 1999, forces of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) and Serbia started shelling the villages, killing a number of people who had been sleeping in tractors and cars. The survivors headed for the border, where all their identification papers were removed. There was also considerable destruction of property. First witness Agim Zeqiri, 50, stated that his village of Celina was surrounded in the afternoon by the army, which set fire to it. He went and hid by a stream, from where the villagers moved, out of fear of being shot from the roofs of houses, leaving the women and children behind. His uncle and cousin later went down to check on the women and children. They never returned. A day later, along with thousands of others, he found himself in the village of Pisjak, which was surrounded by the army and police. The men were separated from the women and children and forced to lie down. A friend was shot dead and he himself was kicked in the head and beaten so badly he developed permanent kidney problems. The men were taken to the Albanian border, in trucks, and expelled. Sixteen of his family were killed, in circumstances that were not clarified. The eldest was 62, the youngest, just 18 months. Milosevic never had a chance to finish his cross-examination of the farmer, who pleaded illness and was excused. The next witness, Fehmi Elshani, described how he saw military vehicles approaching the nearby village of Nogavac, where he lived, and whisked his family away to a safe place. «Meanwhile, they [the vehicles] set off toward Celina and entered Celina,» he testified. Celina then started burning, he said. Later, the army came round to his village and set fire to it as well. He and his two brothers hid in the cellar, and when the Serb forces had left, put out the fires before joining the some 20,000 people from Nogavac and neighboring villages hiding out. In the evening, they were surrounded by Serb troops, «firing into the air with automatic rifles.» He was told that a Serbian officer had said they were to go to Albania. But they were stopped by Serb forces who «made us all go to Nagafc [Nogavac], and they put us, all of us, in Nagafc and didn’t allow us to go to any other villages.» On April 2, he was «awoken by two large detonations» and «it was a powerful explosion, as if from an airplane.» The yard itself was as if «ploughed up by shells» and he saw seven dead bodies. Elshani fled to Prizren, and then to Albania, surrendering his identity card at the border, where «in front my very eyes they threw them away in a place they had collected all the personal identity cards of the people who had left for Albania.» Milosevic suggested there had been a battle between KLA forces and the VJ at the time in question. Elshani denied this. To a suggestion that the village had been hit by cluster bombs, Elshani claimed Cyrillic writing had found on the fragments. Milosevic used the same tactics on Besnik Sokoli, of Pec, who testified that he and his family, fearful of the Serb forces in the city, started walking to Montenegro, were turned back to Pec and then driven to Prizren on buses with hundreds of others and to a village on the border with Albania. To Milosevic’s questions regarding KLA attacks in and around Pec, he replied with a stolid «I don’t know about that.» But the prosecution forestalled Milosevic, asking, «Mr Sokoli, did you leave because of the NATO bombing?» «No, I did not leave because of NATO bombing, because I didn’t have any reason to be afraid of them.» Milosevic found other witnesses trickier to handle. Halit Barani, regional chairman of the Council for the Defense of Human Rights and Freedoms, gave evidence on February 27. It was a detailed account of murder and mayhem in Kosovska Mitrovica, with times, dates and places, even the names of the perpetrators at times. Barani, who moved from house to house to avoid being caught, kept a record of the incidents of violent death, hiding out of sight behind an electricity pole on one occasion. Up until June 17, 1999, he said, 650 Albanians «of both genders and all ages» had been killed in the Mitrovica municipality, and 79 «are considered disappeared,» including his own brother. Eighty thousand people were expelled. In response to questions by the prosecution, Barani frankly detailed the presence of the KLA in various locations and his own contacts with them, forestalling Milosevic. Barani, the latter said, had treated «every conflict between the army and police with the KLA as an attack by the army on Albanian civilians.» A feisty witness, Barani was unfazed by Milosevic’s questioning and freely contradicted him. «I can say that of all of the bodies that I saw, not one of them was in uniform,» Barani stated. Milosevic then grilled Barani on killings by the KLA. Barani denied knowledge, and was put, for the first time, on the defensive. «He knows nothing about a single crime committed over the Serbs or loyal Albanians,» said Milosevic. «He claims that the Serb army and police force went and ran after civilians, with 4,000 KLA members present.» In a battle of wits, the honors lay fairly even. Reasonable doubt? The prosecution rested its case on the Kosovo part of the indictment on September 11. Milosevic’s tactics – demonstrating bias in witnesses, seizing on, often minor, discrepancies in their testimony, confusing witnesses and above all, his strident insistence of a conspiracy against him – were effective in playing to the public gallery, whether in Serbia or the West. But in a court of law, they could merely suggest his case is weak. While many witnesses came across as biased, that did not necessarily reflect on their evidence in chief. After all, there were the bodies. DNA testing – by a Belgrade institute – found 11 corpses exhumed this June in Batajnica, Serbia, to be some of those killed in Suva Reka on March 25, 1999, according to John Zdrilic, tribunal investigator, on September 9. Statistician Patrick Ball, testifying on March 13, cast doubt on Milosevic’s assertions that NATO bombing was responsible for the refugees. Using graphs, he pointed out that NATO air strikes followed the «peak of killings» and the peak of refugee flows in respectively 20 and 13 out of Kosovo’s 29 municipalities. And military analyst Philip Coo, testifying on September 10, pointed out that the VJ and MUP had a clear structure of command. There was little room for illegal armed organizations to operate. But he admitted he had not seen «a single document… signed… by the FRY president giving orders directly to the MUP.»