Milosevic found dead in prison

posted 2006-03-12 17:46:52 by arnoldam

THE HAGUE, Netherlands -- Slobodan Milosevic was under pressure to wind up his defense in a few weeks and he often stayed up late preparing questions for witnesses. Doctors repeatedly warned of the risk from his chronic high blood pressure compounded by the stress.

Yesterday morning a prison guard found the former Yugoslav leader lifeless in bed. It was an abrupt end to his four-year U.N. war crimes tribunal for orchestrating a decade of conflict that ended with 250,000 dead and the Yugoslav federation torn asunder.

Just 10 days ago, Mr. Milosevic complained in court of a "thundering noise" in his head. The next day he cut short an examination of a witness because of another headache. The following day, Feb. 24, he protested the refusal of presiding Judge Patrick Robinson to let him go to Moscow for treatment, but Judge Robinson cut him off.

"I'm not going to consider this," Judge Robinson told him.

The tart exchange was typical of many over the course of the first such trial involving a former head of state -- this one a man reviled by the United States as "the butcher of the Balkans" but a hero to many Serbs despite losing four wars and impoverishing his people in the 1990s while trying to unite Serbia with Serb-dominated areas of Croatia and Bosnia.

Mr. Milosevic apparently died of natural causes, according to the U.N. tribunal that was trying him on 66 counts of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. His chronic heart ailments and high blood pressure had caused numerous long recesses in the trial.

The death came nearly five years after Mr. Milosevic was arrested by Serb authorities and extradited to The Hague as the first sitting head of state ever to be indicted for war crimes.

It meant there would be no judicial verdict for the leader accused of ethnic massacres and other atrocities in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo and was sure to increase criticism of the tribunal for what has been a long, expensive and ultimately wasted proceeding.

The trial, which began in February 2002, will be terminated, tribunal spokeswoman Alexandra Milenov said.

The chief U.N. war crimes prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, expressed regret, saying she believed she would have won a conviction.

"I also regret it for the victims, the thousands of victims, who have been waiting for justice," Ms. Del Ponte told Swiss Television DRS while visiting her native Switzerland.

Former President Bill Clinton, whose administration confronted Mr. Milosevic's regime, also lamented that no verdict would be reached.

"I am sorry that his trial will not be completed, and that he did not acknowledge and apologize for his crimes before his death. Nevertheless, his capture and trial will serve as a reminder that egregious crimes against humanity will not be tolerated," Mr. Clinton said in a statement released by his office in New York.

Mr. Milosevic was accused of being behind a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing against non-Serbs during the wars that erupted as the Yugoslav federation began breaking apart in 1991, and his death was cheered by many in the Balkans.

"Finally, we have some reason to smile. God is fair," said Hajra Catic, who heads an association of women who lost loved ones when ethnic Serb troops slaughtered 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the eastern enclave of Srebrenica in 1995.

In Serbia, where many people praised Mr. Milosevic for trying to preserve Serb dominance, supporters declared his death a "huge loss."

The tribunal said a guard at the U.N. jail in suburban Scheveningen found Mr. Milosevic's body between 9 and 10 a.m. yesterday. It said an autopsy would be conducted today by Dutch officials -- with a pathologist from Serbia-Montenegro in attendance -- to determine the cause of death.

Mr. Milosevic's older brother, Borislav, said the family did not trust the tribunal to carry out an impartial autopsy.

He blamed the tribunal for his brother's death because it rejected his request to get medical treatment in Russia, which offered assurances that Mr. Milosevic would be returned to finish his trial.

"All responsibility for this lies on the shoulders of the international tribunal. He asked for treatment several months ago, they knew this," Borislav Milosevic said in Moscow, where he lives. "They drove him to this as they didn't want to let him out alive."

Zdenko Tomanovic, the defendant's legal adviser, told Serbia's independent B-92 radio from The Hague that Mr. Milosevic had complained that "someone wants to poison" him. Mr. Tomanovic later told state Serbian TV that Russian experts would be permitted to attend today's autopsy.

There was no comment from Mr. Milosevic's wife, Mirjana, who was often characterized as a power behind the scenes during her husband's autocratic rule and has been in self-imposed exile in Russia since 2003. Their son, Marko, also lives in Russia, and their daughter, Marija, lives in Montenegro.

Mr. Milosevic's trial and Saddam Hussein's war crimes proceeding in Iraq were widely seen as together constituting the most important legal test for the international community since German and Japanese leaders were tried after World War II.

Both trials drew stiff criticism over frequent interruptions and the ability of the defendants to use the courtroom as a stage to launch vitriolic anti-Western diatribes. Reveling in the spotlight, Mr. Milosevic insisted on serving as his own defense lawyer. He was able to stay as the Serbs' leader for 13 years despite a crumbling economy and increasing international isolation.

Ivica Dacic, a ranking Socialist Party official, said in Belgrade that Mr. Milosevic's death was a "great loss for Serbia, for the entire Serb nation and for the Socialist party."

"Milosevic was carrying out not only his own defense but also the defense of Serb honor," Mr. Dacic said. "The entire country must thank him for this."

But in the end, his people abandoned him: first in October 2000, when he was unable to convince most Yugoslavs that he had staved off electoral defeat by Vojislav Kostunica, and again on April 1, 2001, when he surrendered after a 26-hour standoff to face criminal charges.

"It is a pity he didn't live to the end of the trial to get the sentence he deserved," Croatian President Stipe Mesic said.

In 1989, Mr. Milosevic became president of Serbia in an election widely considered rigged. His rise alarmed the other peoples of the Yugoslav federation -- Slovenes, Croats, Macedonians, Albanians and others.

In 1991, Croatia and Slovenia declared independence from Yugoslavia. Mr. Milosevic sent tanks to Slovenian borders, triggering a brief war that ended in Slovenia's secession.

But ethnic Serbs in Croatia, encouraged by Mr. Milosevic, took up arms. Mr. Milosevic responded by sending the Serb-led Yugoslav army to intervene, triggering a conflict that killed at least 10,000 people.

Three months later, Bosnia-Herzegovina declared its independence. Mr. Milosevic bankrolled a Bosnian Serb rebellion, triggering a worse war that killed an estimated 200,000 people before a U.S.-brokered peace agreement was reached at Dayton, Ohio, in 1995.

Mr. Milosevic's term as Serbian president ended in 1997 and the constitution prevented him from running again. However, he exploited legal loopholes to have parliament name him president of Yugoslavia, which by then included only the republics of Serbia and Montenegro.

In February 1998, Mr. Milosevic sent troops to crush an ethnic Albanian uprising in Kosovo, drawing sanctions from the United States and its allies. In 1999, after Mr. Milosevic refused to sign a Western-dictated peace accord, NATO conducted 78 days of air strikes on Yugoslavia.

Before Mr. Milosevic gave in and handed over the province's administration to the United Nations in June 1999, the U.N. tribunal charged him and four top aides with war crimes and crimes against humanity in Kosovo. It later broadened the charges to include genocide.