A Week at the Trial of Slobodan Milosevic

Tiptoeing Around the Srebrenica Minefield
Notes from different corners of the world.
Sept. 15 2005 3:19 AM

A Week at the Trial of Slobodan Milosevic

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Tiptoeing around the Srebrenica minefield.

THE HAGUE, Netherlands; Aug 24, 2005This morning, Slobodan Milosevic and Vojislav Seselj (who rises smartly as the judges enter) are talking about the rogue paramilitary groups that rampaged through Yugoslavia during its collapse. Milosevic lounges in his seat, one hand around the back of the chair and his paunch poking out of his blue suit jacket. Everything about his demeanor drips contempt. He can't even be bothered to keep the names of major paramilitary groups straight, stumbling theatrically over the proper name of the Black Hand militia as he calls them "the so-called Red Hand or Red Arm. Black Arm, sorry."

It's hard to overstate the cumulative effect of this total lack of respect. Milosevic can't let an instruction or reproof pass without a saucy response. He can't just say, "Yes, sir," accept a ruling, and move on. Disdain for the tribunal and its staff suffuses his every move, from his insistence on calling the judges "Mister" rather than "Judge," to his eye-rolls in the face of a lecture from the bench, to his metronomic reference to the charges against him as "this so-called indictment" or "this nonsense." Robinson reprimands him at one point for having Seselj read lengthy passages from a printed document, acidly noting, "We know the witness is literate and that he can read." Milosevic looks slightly down with a stifled smile as he listens through headphones to the translation of what Robinson has just said. You can tell that he's coming up with a wisecrack. Finally, his lips pursed contemptuously, Milosevic responds, "He can write, too, Mr. Robinson," before launching back into his questioning as though no interruption had ever occurred.

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Seselj, on the other hand, is a compulsive lecturer and know-it-all. When Judge Robinson asks whether he directed any paramilitary units during the Kosovo crisis, Seselj meanders off on a digression about a secret pre-World War I organization that may have been involved with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo. When Milosevic queries whether any other paramilitaries were operating in Kosovo in the late 1990s, Seselj launches into a lengthy explanation of his political quarrels with Arkan, an infamous warlord and criminal. He's still settling old scores, chuckling to himself that a rival party wasn't able to recruit many volunteers for the war theater because "the structure of their membership was effeminate; it was a bit flaccid." Of course, he can be every bit as argumentative as Milosevic: Judge Bonomy, riffling through papers on his desk, asks, "What was the date of [that] incident?" and Seselj rumbles: "It wasn't an incident! Why would it be an incident? It was just an event!" Judge Robinson tells Seselj to slow down because he hears "a certain breathlessness in translation" as the interpreters struggle to keep up, and Seselj snaps, "Well, they will be able to draw breath in about 15 minutes."

As the morning winds on, Milosevic turns to the rise of tensions in Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. By way of background, he has Seselj review the atrocities committed during World War II by the Croatian fascist regime, which "perpetrated crimes against the Serbs, gypsies, and Jews, surpassing in number the crimes perpetrated by Hitler." Milosevic is actually doing rather well from a technical standpoint: asking short questions, eliciting a colorful narrative, and mostly staying out of Seselj's way as he tells the story Milosevic wants to hear.

It's a story of fear, of old memories of real terrors from World War II. Of a Croatian nationalist government in 1990 that began adopting symbols intimately associated with the 1940s Croatian fascist regime, that deleted a constitutional provision establishing that the Serbian people were a constituent nation in Croatia, that demanded the signing of loyalty oaths. Of fascist graffiti on Serb Orthodox Churches. "The Serbs were frightened throughout the Croatian federal unit," Seselj says. "They were afraid that their terrible fate from 1941 to 1945 would be repeated." So, "they organized night patrols, night guards. They put up log barriers. ... Some of them were armed, others were not. The weapons they had were mostly obsolete. ... Everywhere I went I found that Serbs were very anxious and very afraid of what was coming."

As Seselj tells this story—which is substantially true, so far as it goes—the way he rhythmically jabs his hands and chops his fingers in time with the rapid, violent cadence of his words reminds me of old film clips of Hitler addressing the Reichstag. This unfortunate association is probably not helped by the increasingly hysterical flow of complaints about the long-suffering Serbian people. Conspiracy and self-aggrandizement go hand in hand: "I cannot know to whom I am a threat, but I am a threat to many. ... But what can I do about it? Because I am a threat simply by existing."

At times, a peculiar undercurrent of camaraderie can mellow the tension in the room. The judges' ongoing effort to rein in Seselj's rambling answers turns into something of a running joke. In response to one question from the bench, Seselj gives a terse response, then sweetly asks, "Could I have given you a briefer explanation?" Judge Robinson says, with something of a jocular tut-tut: "You did very well there, Mr. Seselj. Congratulations," and Milosevic immediately chimes in, "I join in the congratulations, Mr. Robinson." Seselj half-laughs and says, "Another moment, and I'll blush with all these congratulations."

When the testimony turns to Srebrenica, the good-natured joshing ends. It's a settled matter at the tribunal that the mass murder of more than 7,000 unarmed Bosnian Muslims at the Srebrenica U.N. "safe haven" constituted genocide. Earlier this year, the new release of sickening video clips of the Srebrenica executions jolted The Hague and Serbia—and, many court observers thought, Milosevic himself. So this is a minefield for both men. And while they understate the scale of the killings (Seselj is skeptical that even as many as 1,200 were killed, because "it was impossible for this small group of soldiers to kill so many men by individual shooting"), neither Milosevic nor Seselj deny that what happened was an epic atrocity: Seselj calls it "a great shame on the Serbian people." But, as they tell it, it certainly wasn't a top-down crime: "Can anyone claim," Milosevic asks, "that the authorities in Yugoslavia tried to hush up the crime in Srebrenica?" "That claim is untenable," Seselj snaps, "We thought it was our legal, political, and moral obligation that the crime of executing Muslim prisoners of war in Srebrenica should not go unpunished."

Milosevic's examination is really quite well done. As soon as the question of Srebrenica arose, his mood turned somber, and his gestures became mild, almost delicate, giving off a vaguely scholarly vibe. Whether affected or in earnest, it's good courtroom theater. Gravely denying any connection between the top Serbian leadership and the events at Srebrenica, Milosevic gets Seselj to repeatedly refer in amazement to the mere five-year prison sentence the tribunal imposed on Drazen Erdemovic, who admitted to personally killing some 70 helpless prisoners at Srebrenica. (They glide over the trial court's finding that Erdemovic participated only in the face of death threats from his superiors.) It's all part of Milosevic's constant chipping away at what he calls an illegitimate, illegal institution. Does it matter in any legal sense whether Erdemovic got a "fitting" punishment for his crimes? Of course not. But rhetorically it's an effective buttress for his overriding claim that he is the only person in this courtroom with real moral authority.

To a first-time visitor, that would probably be the most surprising thing about the trial. Early reports left the impression that Milosevic wasn't mounting a serious legal defense against the crimes he is charged with but was instead using his trial as a platform to make a political case against the Western powers most responsible for his fall. It's been my experience that he's actually having it both ways. To the extent he can, he's chipping away at the prosecution's legal claims while taking every opportunity to score political points (fair or not) for the Serb audience back home—and for history. It is an impressive balancing act.

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

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