A Week at the Trial of Slobodan Milosevic

A Wired Courtroom Full of Powdered Wigs
Notes from different corners of the world.
Sept. 16 2005 7:20 AM

A Week at the Trial of Slobodan Milosevic

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A wired courtroom full of powdered wigs

Deputy Prosecutor Geoffrey Nice. Click image to expand.
Deputy Prosecutor Geoffrey Nice

THE HAGUE, Netherlands; Aug 25, 2005 Milosevic's booming voice penetrates the visitors gallery as he approaches the courtroom, still unseen. As he enters, he is bantering with the guards, who look startlingly young in their robin's-egg-blue shirts, crisply pressed pants, and spiky Dutch haircuts slick with gel. The group settles into place, and one of the guards fixes Milosevic a glass of water as he opens his briefcase in its spot next to the interpretation apparatus and personal TV screen.

I always imagine the head of information technology breathing a quiet sigh of satisfaction when he drops by this courtroom. Virtually every staff seat has a computer wired to the tribunal network. From the visitors gallery, you can watch the prosecution team Alt-Tab furiously between trial transcripts, evidence dossiers, and Lotus Notes; e-mails fly back and forth all day long. All official personnel have headphones for the translation that's piped in from the interpreters' booths lining the sides of the courtroom, and there are special screens everywhere that spit out real-time transcripts of the proceedings as they happen. Six cameras zoom and pan throughout the entire hearing as a control room somewhere stitches together a professional production, cutting smoothly from one shot to the next. The picture gets fed to the individual televisions set in the desk of almost every courtroom participant, as well as to a pair of large screens suspended from the ceiling in the visitors gallery, to several monitors out in the main lobby, to the computer screen of every single tribunal employee who chooses to watch, and to the outside world over the Internet.

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Because this technology goes hand in hand with the tribunal's insistence on observing a grab bag of hoary judicial formalities, the trial serves up some moments of amusing anachronism. On the rare occasions that one of Milosevic's court-assigned attorneys stands up to make a point on his client's behalf, it's a Phiz illustration gone ever so slightly wrong: a powdered barrister's wig perched fussily atop his head, black robes billowing around his skinny frame, delicate reading glasses slipped to the end of his beaky nose ... and molded headphones connected to the desktop dashboard by a long wire that winds down his neck like a black creeper vine.

Today, Milosevic is charging into the heart of the prosecution's theory about his objective during Yugoslavia's collapse: establishing a Greater Serbia. To the surprise of exactly no one, Seselj sails off on an expansive discourse about the historical origins of Serbian national consciousness, railing about "the Ottoman yoke," "the Austrian yoke," and "the Venetian yoke," and enthusiastically detailing the machinations of 15th-century European politics. When all is said and done, it turns out that Seselj's theory lumps just about all the former Yugoslavia (except Slovenia and a few districts in Croatia) into Greater Serbia. As Seselj explains it, Yugoslavia's real problem was its peoples' blinkered inability to recognize that they were basically all Serbs: "An overwhelming majority of today's Croats are Catholic Serbs. All Muslims in Bosnia and Herzegovina [are] Muslim Serbs." (This is eerily reminiscent of Kemal Ataturk's insistence that there are no Kurdish people, only "mountain Turks.") But Seselj is eager for everyone to understand that his Serb Radical Party was the only real proponent of this ambitious vision. As he tells Milosevic, "You never took a hard-line position. You always wanted reason. You always wanted compromise. You were in favor of dialogue, and I regularly had a much more hard-line position."

In the midst of this ethno-historical muddle, the judges are suddenly troubled by an apparent confusion. The theory of the prosecution's case—what enables the prosecution to link the disparate events in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo into a single trial—is that the actions of Milosevic himself were driven by a desire to achieve a Greater Serbia. Was this defined by the highly specific geographic boundaries that Seselj's technical argument leads to? Or was Milosevic's goal simply "a Greater Serbia" in the sense of a larger chunk of land than the Yugoslav federal state of Serbia, such that territories with sufficiently sizable Serb populations became targets for annexation?

The judges are very worried about this. But even if the prosecution's use of the term "Greater Serbia" hasn't been characterized by Seseljian precision, I don't get the hang-up here. The point is what Milosevic did in the pursuit of his goal, not the precise scope of his territorial ambitions. The point is the ethnic cleansing, the mass murder, and the violent persecutions of which he stands accused. But the judges disagree, and the head of the prosecution team is on his feet more than Milosevic for much of the remainder of the day's session.

Time slows. One of the representatives from the court clerk's office starts inspecting his nails, carefully pushing cuticles back one by one. Seselj shifts in his seat as 20, then 30, then 40 minutes pass. He turns around to smile and nod a greeting to two women in the gallery who titter, smile back, and wave.

Lead prosecutor Geoffrey Nice is the cultivated acme of Oxbridge elegance. His tones are slow and measured; his dark hair cropped close to his head, like a Caesar cut without the product. When he rolls back in his chair to speak with a colleague, pale pink socks and khakis poke out of his somber black robes. And he's good. Despite one schoolboy moment where he tries to resolve an inconsistency by saying that, of course, he hadn't personally written that brief, Nice's relaxed explanation of the judges' difficulty seems perfectly sensible. Milosevic's goal was "the pragmatic one of ensuring that all the Serbs who had lived in the former Yugoslavia should be allowed ... to live in the same unit." Only when it became clear that the former Yugoslavia was not long for this world did Milosevic seek to achieve the same objective by grafting all territories with sufficiently large Serb populations onto the nucleus of the federal Serbian state. But the judges are still not satisfied, and much tail-chasing ensues.

Milosevic finally seizes the opportunity to work himself up into full rhetorical lather. He begins to rage about the "nebulous" theory of the prosecution. "I think Mr. Nice should pull himself together before he goes on and recall what he's accusing me of. ... I did not organize these three separatist movements in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo in order to create a Yugoslavia in which all Serbs could live in one state when Yugoslavia has been existing for 70 years! Is there any logic to this? This is insulting to the average intelligence of an average man!" He's all but stomping around the room, finally looking down in dramatic silence with a comically exaggerated scowl on his face. The half-dozen people in the public gallery who appear to be of Slavic descent giggle at this display.

By the end of the day, Milosevic's superior, wry, sly attitude has slipped entirely. He's now fulminating about Croatian aggression against ethnic Serbs, about a "criminal plan to kill and expel the Serbs" from Croatia. "What is your explanation that only one [Croatian] general is indicted for this? Mr. Nice could probably give us a response, and he will have to at some point. Not everyone listening to this is an idiot. ... Mr. Nice is laboring under the illusion that he will not be held criminally responsible for the crime he is perpetrating here. Not before your bench, of course, but he will. Because he is one of the criminals—"

Judge Robinson finally cuts him off as the interpreters catch up. "That comment is entirely inappropriate and totally without any base or function." And so it is. But that doesn't really matter. Despite every effort of the conscientious tribunal staff to squeeze this case into the comfortable rhythms of an ordinary criminal courtroom, Milosevic will have his say. Contemptuous and indignant, swaggering and self-righteous, he's made this his trial in every sense. And so long as he keeps threading that successful line between political theater and a legitimate self-defense, there's not much that anyone can do about it.

Julian Davis Mortenson teaches constitutional law and international law at Michigan Law School.

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