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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hague Begins Hearing Case Against Milosevic

THE HAGUE, Netherlands -- Slobodan Milosevic masterminded campaigns of murder, torture and deportation across the Balkans during a bloody decade in power, prosecutors said Tuesday at the start of Europe's biggest war crimes trial in half a century.

As the former Yugoslav leader glowered from across the room, they told judges from the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia that Milosevic would be forced to meet his victims face-to-face for the first time.

"Some of the incidents revealed an almost medieval savagery and a calculated cruelty that went far beyond the bounds of legitimate warfare," Chief Prosecutor Carla del Ponte said.

High-ranking military and political figures would testify against Milosevic, she pledged, adding that they needed protection for participating in the most significant war crimes trial in Europe since the Nazi prosecutions after World War II.

More than a million people were imprisoned or forced from their homes and at least tens of thousands were killed, maimed and wounded during conflicts in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo.

"This tribunal, and this trial in particular, give the most powerful demonstration that no one is above the law or beyond the reach of international justice," del Ponte said.

Her fellow prosecutor, Geoffrey Nice, described the burning alive of children and the throwing of women down wells by Serb troops, before asking the court to view such evidence "as dispassionately as possible" later in the trial.

The prosecution's case centers on proving that Milosevic, who took copious notes as the allegations were read out, was at the heart of those events as Serbian and then Yugoslav leader.

Milosevic, now 60, "did not confront his victims," Nice said. "He was able to view events from high political office. He had these crimes committed for him by others." But, in a statement going to the heart of the case, he added: "In these days when press, radio and television bring wars into our homes as they occur, he cannot not have known."

Prosecutors expect the trial in the tribunal's anonymous gray courthouse to last at least two years. Many observers expect Milosevic, who refuses even to recognize the court's right to judge him, to try to make it last forever.

The tribunal has entered "not guilty" pleas on his behalf to all three indictments and appointed three prominent international lawyers as "amici curiae" or "friends of the court" charged with the task of ensuring he has a fair trial.

He has refused to appoint counsel, but one of his legal advisers, Zdenko Tomanovic, said Milosevic had made contact with the "amici curiae" for the first time Tuesday, after previously refusing even to acknowledge them.

After the morning prosecution statements, Milosevic asked the amici: "Do you hear this rubbish? How can you not react?" Tomanovic said.

Prosecutors said the opening statements might last until Wednesday. Only then will Milosevic get a chance to answer them.

Nice took the court back to the collapsing Yugoslavia of the late 1980s to try to explain Milosevic's rise to power, showing archive film of the communist leader's landmark visit to Kosovo, when he whipped up the nationalist passions of aggrieved Serbs.

Milosevic, flanked by seated guards in the courtroom, smiled faintly and raised his eyebrows in what appeared to be ironic amusement.

Milosevic, said Nice, had come to wield great power in Yugoslavia from behind the scenes rather than overtly. "He controlled events because he controlled the people who constituted the bodies that ... did evil," Nice said.

The British lawyer outlined at length what he said had been a grand plan by Milosevic to carve a "Greater Serbia" out of the wreckage of communist federal Yugoslavia.

That required the forcible removal, or "ethnic cleansing," of non-Serbs from areas of Croatia and Bosnia, he explained. Milosevic is charged with crimes against humanity in Croatia in 1991-92, genocide in the 1992-95 Bosnian war and crimes against humanity in Kosovo in 1999. In the coming months, prosecutors plan to introduce evidence relating only to Kosovo. The Bosnia and Croatia cases are not expected to begin in earnest at The Hague until July.

Small groups of pro- and anti-Milosevic activists demonstrated outside the Hague court building. Supporters called the prosecution a "lynching," while representatives of Bosnian war victims demanded the world do more to reverse the consequences of "ethnic cleansing" and help refugees go home.

For Milosevic's accusers, the trial marks a historic step forward for international morality.

For his defenders, it is an exercise in Western hypocrisy. Milosevic has said he would cite in his defense the words and deeds of U.S. and European leaders during the blood-soaked Balkan conflicts of the 1990s.

Supporters of Milosevic accuse the West of turning on him as a scapegoat after using him as a "peacemaker" in the mid-1990s and his legal advisers say he will name international figures who were "involved in the Yugoslav crisis" such as former U.S. President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair.