Milosevic's death casts shadow on war-crimes tribunal

The stock of Slobodan Milosevic had already been rising among Serbs who watched his feisty performances at his war-crimes trial at The Hague.

His death now makes him a martyr—and brings into serious question Belgrade’s future cooperation with the war-crimes tribunal.

A groundswell of emotion in Serbia for the fallen leader known in the West as the “Butcher of Belgrade” would create a political obstacle to handing former Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic, and five other fugitive suspects, over to the tribunal—just weeks before the deadline for extradition.

Milosevic’s death and the suicide last week in prison of convicted former Croatian Serb leader Milan Babic, a star witness in the Milosevic trial, have created the impression in Belgrade of The Hague as a gallows for Serb nationalists—a place where the West lets them rot away.

“How are they now going to explain to the Serbian public that Milosevic was not severely ill, as he had claimed, and that the Hague jail is safe for the Serbs?” asked political analyst Brace Grubacic.

Milosevic, who suffered from heart problems and high blood pressure, had recently demanded to be temporarily released to go to Moscow for treatment.

But presiding Judge Patrick Robinson refused, ruling that even with Russian guarantees to send him back, the court was “not satisfied ... that the accused, if released, would return for the continuation of his trial”.

Ivica Dacic, the caretaker president of Milosevic’s Socialist Party, echoed the views of many in Belgrade on Saturday when he said: “Milosevic did not die in The Hague; he was killed in The Hague.”

He added that before dying, Milosevic “managed to defend the national and state interests of Serbia and the Serb people, and everybody should be grateful to him for that”.

Toma Fila, Milosevic’s family lawyer, said: “Milosevic’s death will tear to shreds the tribunal’s credibility, which has seriously been tarnished already. He is the sixth Serb to die at the hands of this court.”

Former Czech foreign minister Jiri Dienstbier, who served as UN special envoy for human rights in Yugoslavia from 1998-2001, said: “I am afraid that his death will be misused by extremists [in Serbia] who will proclaim [Milosevic] a national hero.”

Those fears took little time to materialise.
The ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party, staunch Milosevic’s wartime allies, said in a statement that “after Milosevic’s death, nothing will be the same in Serbia”. 

“The Radical Party promises to the citizens of Serbia that it will no longer tolerate the harassment of the Serbian patriots and their families,” citing alleged “harassment” by Serbia’s pro-Western President Boris Tadic and Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic.

Many observers both in Serbia and the West called into question the validity of the Hague war-crimes tribunal for other reasons—suggesting the chance for a historical reckoning had been lost because the trial was allowed to drag on for years.

Former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt, who served as the UN special envoy to the Balkans between 1999 and 2001, called Milosevic’s death “seriously damaging to The Hague tribunal”.

In a written statement to Swedish news agency TT, Bildt said that “despite years of trials we will never have a verdict, and thereby a conclusion regarding important questions of guilt”.

Natasa Kandic, a leading human rights activist in Serbia who has provided evidence to the UN war-crimes prosecutors, said Milosevic’s death before the end of the trial has caused “historic damage”.—Sapa-AP

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