bosnia report
New Series No: 51-52 April - July 2006
The charges have been sufficiently proved
by Dunja Melcic

The beginning of the trial of Slobodan Milošević in September 2002 was a historic event: for the first time in Europe a head of state had been indicted by, and brought before, an international court. The second historic moment - the delivery of a verdict - never happened. Milošević died from heart failure just a couple of weeks before the end of the main hearing. This inglorious conclusion does not mean, however, that no opinion is possible on the weight of evidence against the accused and on the credibility of his defence.

Six months after his fall from power, on 2 October 2000, Milošević was charged and arrested in Belgrade for abuse of power and corruption. At the end of June 2001 he was delivered to the International Tribunal for War Crimes in The Hague, which had indicted him already during the war in Kosovo, in the spring of 1999. Contrary to frequent assertions, Milošević’s extradition had an impeccable legal basis. Subsequent investigations carried out by other Serbian courts led to suspicion against him of having prompted others to commit murder in four cases.

Milošević argued before the Tribunal that he did not recognize the court, while at the same time he defended himself in accordance with its rules, at least some of the time and only when it suited him. Srđa Popović, the leading independent Serbian lawyer, commented: ‘According to the rules of the Serbian criminal code regarding court proceedings ... a defendant who insults the participants and the dignity of the court - which Milošević does often and in the most boorish manner - can be removed from the court for a limited time or throughout the examination of the evidence (Article 299).’

The trial

The presentation of evidence before the Tribunal started with the case of Kosovo, in February 2002, and ended at the beginning of September 2002, after 90 court days. The presentation of evidence on the charges concerning the wars in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina began some twenty days later, and ended in February 2004. The defendant was allowed 150 court days for defence; he began questioning the witnesses in September 2004. The cases relating to Kosovo on the one hand and to Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina on the other were objectively different. When Milošević appeared before the Tribunal, several trials of people charged with war crimes in the wars of 1991-5 had already begun, and some had even been concluded. The factual situation had already been sufficiently proven in accordance with the international criminal code: namely, ‘war crimes’ (articles 2 and 3 of the Statute), ‘crimes against humanity’ (article 5) and ‘genocide’ (article 4). In the verdict passed in April 2001 on Radislav Krstić, chief of staff of the armed forces of RS, for mass murder at Srebrenica (1995), the fact of genocide had been established - for the first time - and confirmed by the Appeal Council in April 2004. By contrast, the trial dealing with the punishable acts in Kosovo (the deportation and massacre of Kosovo Albanians) represented at the same time the first general acceptance of that fact as proven.

The external difference between the two parts of the trial was evident in that in the first part many witnesses gave their initial testimony in court, while in the second the prosecution was able to use documents, written testimony and already established facts and bases for decision. The prosecutors Carla del Ponte, Geoffrey Nice, Dermot Groome, Dirk Ryneveld and Hildegard Uerzt-Retzlaff offered evidence confirming beyond doubt Milošević’s direct link with the gravest crimes. Although the accused ‘did not personally meet the victims’, he ordered that these crimes ‘be committed by use of others’. This is why the main task of the prosecutor was to prove Milošević’s primary responsibility for already established criminal acts. If this did not always succeed fully from the legal point of view, it was nevertheless proved with a degree of probability bordering on certainty that Milošević was the one who pulled the strings behind this criminal enterprise. A clear image thus emerged of Milošević having all power in his hands. The defendant himself contributed to the consolidation of this image - sometimes unintentionally and sometimes because he could not resist displaying his own grandeur.

Slobodan Milošević was president of Serbia from 1989 on: he was twice elected to that post, in 1990 and 1992, in general and direct elections. In 1997 he was also elected president of the ‘rump Yugoslavia’ (FRY). Borisav Jović, who was a member of the last presidency of the socialist Yugoslavia (1990-1991) and was at that time Milošević’s closest confidant, stated before the court in November 2003: ‘Milošević had the final say in all important as well as in some less important decisions.’ This means that Milošević alone decided personal promotions and dismissals. Jović described this practice: he and Milošević retired the last Yugoslav defence minister, General Veljko Kadijević, in order to facilitate the realization of their concept of a ‘new Yugoslavia’. (Jović fancied himself able to influence Milošević up to 1992.) He confirmed that the ‘new Yugoslavia’ assumed the amputation of one third of Croatia (claimed to be ‘Serb land’). Milošević changed leading officials of the state, the government, his own party (SPS), the army, the secret service and the media at will, and in accordance with his tactical conceptions. Jović, who similarly lost his post of deputy president of SPS in just twelve minutes at one party meeting, quoted a series of such sudden personnel changes. One can deduce from this that the Serbs active in the wars were Milošević’s men.

The diplomat Charles Kirudja, who met with Milošević on several occasions in Belgrade, confirmed these allegations. He was particularly struck by the fact that Milošević did not have a team of advisers: he had a position on all issues and if he wished could take decisive measures at any time. Kirudja described how Milošević summoned the secret police chief Stanišić and sent him to Ratko Mladić in order to end the crisis created by the Bosnian Serbs’ seizure of 284 UN soldiers as hostages. A large number of other Western diplomats and negotiators testified many times that Milošević had control over all local war lords.

As for Kosovo, it was possible to prove beyond all doubt that, beginning with 1998, he had the apparatus of repression prepared for conducting terror against, and for deportations of, the Kosovo Albanians. By transferring the highest-ranking individuals in the police and the army, and by linking up these forces with the secret and security services as well as with various special or paramilitary units, he created a highly coordinated formation. A coordinated and planned pattern of behaviour could be clearly discerned also in the systematic character of the deportations (which the prosecutors confirmed with the relevant maps) and their speed (around 800,000 Albanians were deported in the course of one week, between 24 and 31 March 1999).

Zoran Lilić, who served as president of FRY between 1993 and 1997 with Milošević’s permission, confirmed that Milošević, not he, made all decisions. Foreign diplomats supported this in their testimony to the court, saying that they never negotiated with Lilić. It has been proved beyond all doubt - on the basis of statements by Milošević’s subordinates, among other things - that during the war he himself ordered the removal of dead bodies from Kosovo. In May 2001 the Serbian media wrote about the discovery of a mass grave in Batajnica, a place close to Belgrade, containing, it was suspected, the bodies of Albanian victims. Soon afterwards similar mass graves were found in other parts of Serbia. The Batajnica grave held the bodies of those massacred in Suva Reka (near Prizren). The murdered, including two small children and a pregnant woman, had long before been loaded into a refrigerated van (the property of a slaughter- house in Prizren) and dumped into the Danube. But the van had floated to the surface and been discovered at the beginning of April 1999, after which the police had investigated the case. The participants testified before the Tribunal. A policeman who had guarded the spot described how 83 bodies and body parts of people up to the age of 70 wearing civilian clothes were loaded onto another van and taken away. The man who undertook the job confirmed that he was acting under orders, while Radomir Marković, who headed the Serbian state security service at the time, referred at one point to an order issued personally by Milošević at a meeting in April 1999, according to which all evidence of crimes in Kosovo had to be destroyed. DNA analyses made by a Spanish laboratory secured indisputable proof of the victims’ genetic similarity with their relatives in Kosovo.

Three months are unacceptable!

The prosecution offered a large quantity of practically unanswerable evidence in relation to concrete criminal acts. Around 250 of Milošević’s telephonic conversations with his collaborators (the head of the secret service Jovica Stanišić, the director of the customs service Mihalj Kertes, the leaders of various militias and paramilitary formations such as Željko Ražnatović Arkan and Milorad Luković Legija, or the leaders of the Serb rebels in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina), recorded by intelligence services, were accepted as material evidence by the court.

There is, for example, an exchange with Radovan Karadžić in July 1991 when Milošević, evidently in a good mood, informed Karadžić about his recent conversation with the German ambassador:

‘So this ambassador tells me something like he has information that (Croatian Serbs) have weapons; whereupon I tell him "Serbs always have weapons! We are that kind of people. We always have weapons." Milošević laughs cheerfully and continues:

‘He then shits on, what else can he do, after all? So he says he believes that "they even have mortars". And I tell him "mortars too are weapons".’ Karadžić, on the other end of the line, begins to laugh, and Milošević adds:

‘What did he expect? - that I would tell him I had sent them there personally!’

These telephonic conversations confirm that Milošević knew full well all the details and was directly involved in all events, large and small. In September 1991, when the Bosnian police arrested the leader of the Croatian Serbs Milan Martić, Milošević concerned himself with his liberation, and organized a helicopter to ensure the utmost speed. He repeatedly sent Jovica Stanišić to initiate actions, or when and where necessary to regulate and correct something. Milošević decided whether the Croatian Serbs should sign any given agreement, and which one of them would do it. As early as the summer of 1991 Milošević and Karadžić discussed future strategy for Bosnia-Herzegovina, agreeing that the first necessity was to establish control over the ‘Serb areas’.

In the early spring of 1991 Milošević fretted aloud over the three-month-long suspension of the proclamation of Slovenia’s and Croatia’s independence imposed by the EC. It was a far too long wait, couldn’t be allowed; a radical change had to be initiated immediately: ‘... the only question remaining is to ensure the abolition [of the federal state] in line with our conception’.

All under a single command

Regardless of what his initial plans were, Milošević was in a hurry. As early as the spring of 1990 he ordered Stanišić to proceed, after which the chief of the Serbian intelligence service sent to the Serb ‘fortress’ of Knin in Croatia his right-hand man Frenki Simatović with instructions to prepare a rebellion and train the Serbs militarily. These actions were confirmed before the court by Aleksandar Vasiljević, head of the Yugoslav counter-intelligence service, who also stressed that the Yugoslav state security service had supplied weapons to the Serb militia and paramilitary units, including those of the Serb Četnik ‘vojvoda’ Vojislav Š ešelj, and that in the end they had all come under the command of the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA). Between 1991 and 1992 some 13,000 JNA (later VJ) officers were engaged in the (occupied) areas of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

A protected witness confirmed that the Chetniks were also transported to the occupied areas in state-owned buses. According to numerous witnesses, all fighting troops were paid for by Belgrade and most of them were on the payroll of the VJ. Ratko Mladić’s pension, after all, was paid up to the summer of 2005 by the VJ - albeit, at the end, by way of intermediaries. Seeking to justify himself against the charge of pilfering public money, Milošević himself admitted he had financed the Croatian and Bosnian Serbs. At the beginning of December 2003 a former JNA officer described how his unit was fired on by another JNA unit from a supposedly Croatian position, in order to be able to ascribe the attack to the Croatian (‘Ustasha’) side and use it as an excuse to march in and drive out the population. Milošević for his part ignored all this evidence against him, insisting that the JNA had become involved only in order to separate ‘the parties to the civil war’. Numerous experts provided the prosecution with detailed analyses of the various aspects of the JNA’s conduct of the war. The Belgian military expert Renaud Theunens analysed the JNA’s confidential documents, and showed precisely how the role of the JNA changed in the course of the war. The video film he ran on that occasion showed a JNA general praising the participation of Arkan’s units (the ‘Tigers’) in the conquest of Vukovar, with the words: ‘these are not "paramilitaries" but patriots fighting for the Serb people ... we surround a village, they march in, kill those who refuse to surrender, and we move on.’ Theunens also produced Milošević’s personal orders to the Serb leaders in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Milošević tried to devalue this evidence, because it involved only an ‘instruction’; but Theunens explained that in the JNA’s terminology ‘instruction’ and ‘order’ had the same meaning.

That Milošević controlled the whole military machine that responded with force to the political changes in Croatia (and Slovenia) - from the top of the JNA via militias and bands of extreme right-wingers to local detachments - was something about which Milan Babić was able to testify at first hand during the hearings. From the end of 1991 Babić played the role of ‘president’ of the self-proclaimed Republika Srpska Krajina, initially with Milošević’s support. Babić’s testimony appeared credible, his remorse and admission of guilt sincere. In July 2003 he was sentenced to thirteen years in prison on the grounds of his personal responsibility for deportation of the Croat population and infringements of human rights in 1991 and 1992. At the beginning of March 2006 Babić committed suicide in his cell in Sheveningen, to which he had been brought from hiding in order to testify against Milan Martić, charged among other things with a missile attack on the Croatian capital of Zagreb (May 1995). So far as one can tell from outside, Babić, a dentist by profession, was an unstable personality: he deserved better care than that which he got in The Hague. His testimony was credible because it was consistent and in conformity with other testimonies; he appeared in full control of himself under Milošević’s cross-examination and displayed a sober realism. The presiding judge, Patrick Robinson, asked him: ‘Do you mean to say that Mr Milošević was the supreme commander of the JNA?’ Babić replied: ‘Yes! Formally it was the SFRJ presidency, but de facto it was Milošević.’

Credibly established

The fact that the evidence put forward on the war in Croatia turned out to be so credible is linked to the fact that this was the beginning, and an evident framework in which forces evidently under Milošević’s influence functioned. There was also the high quality of individual proofs: testimony by witnesses from informed circles and by neutral observers some of whom had from the start been present as eyewitnesses of what happened in Vukovar and other besieged places - like, for example, EC observers. Milosević’s responsibility and his presence in the Bosnian-Serbian war could not be proved so easily. Apart from many objective differences between the two countries, this was due above all to the fact that the leaders of the Bosnian Serbs - Radovan Karadžić, Momčilo Krajišnik, Biljana Plavšić and others - were politically more prominent than their counterparts in Croatia; as well as to the fact that the Serb forces in Bosnia were stronger, and that a considerable majority of the country’s second-largest national group supported their option. In Croatia, by contrast, the project was supported by only a (mainly rural) part of the Serb population with the Krajina regime, whereas - as the prosecution underlined - a considerable number lived peacefully in the rest of the country. The Bosnian Serbs, furthermore, functioned more independently than those in Croatia, in their efforts to create an ethnically pure Serb unit by forcibly deporting the non-Serbs. The JNA in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in addition, consolidated itself on the basis of a new structure of command and enjoyed a much higher degree of operational superiority. The extensive prior preparations for a lightning war against Bosnia-Herzegovina led to a speedy conquest of cities and whole regions, as well as to the siege of Sarajevo. This gave the impression of a relative autonomy of the army, even though, as Jović described, it had all been planned long before.

The leaders of the Bosnian Serbs united around a ‘six-point strategic plan’ to create an exclusively Serb construction, adopted by the Serb assembly in May 1992. The first aim was ethnic separation. In Karadžić’s words, ‘our enemies, i.e. the Croats and Muslims’ were to be ‘forcefully driven out of their homes, so that we no longer live together with them in the same state’. This plan included also the elimination of the Bosnian-Serbian border along the Drina, i.e. according to the confession made by Miroslav Deronjić (one of the main actors) the deportation of the Bosnian Muslims who formed the majority of the population there from a fifty-kilometre-wide band of territory west of the Drina. The minutes of the assembly meeting provide additional essential evidence of substantial material support for the Bosnian Serb entity, which like its Croatian counter-part was unable on its own either to exist or to wage war. Milošević’s speech before the Bosnian Serb assembly (at the beginning of 1993) confirms this, as does Karadžić’s admission (May 1994) that without Milošević and Serbia ‘we would not have had the means to wage war’.

The UN official David Harland (who had served in Sarajevo from 1993 to1999) gave evidence to the court of Milošević’s connection with the Bosnian Serbs. During his testimony, the witness tried hard to differentiate clearly and stress the separate interests of Milošević and Karadžić. This notwithstanding, there was no doubt left in the end that Milošević’s influence was overwhelming, and that he was in a position to prevent or stop the Bosnian Serb crimes.


Units from Serbia fought in Bosnia and participated in many war crimes. Milošević received reports on a daily basis from various sources about military activities in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, including about the bestialities being committed. One former JNA member gave testimony via video-link about how with his helicopter he had supplied the front-line troops in eastern Bosnia. These operations were under the command of the head of the special police Frenki Simatović, who directed from Serbia all the units of the JNA and the police deployed there. The secretary of the notorious paramilitary chief Željko Ražnatović Arkan gave evidence that his ‘Tigers’ never fought in Croatia or Bosnia-Herzegovina without the knowledge of or instructions from the Serbian security service.

Since many Tribunal sessions were held in camera, it is difficult to say whether the judges were given clearer evidence linking Milošević directly to the massacre at Srebrenica. His confidant Lilić confirmed that he at least learnt about it very early on; but no investigation was set in train to establish who was involved. This too is a criminal offence.

At all events how the conquest of Srebrenica proceeded, and the plan to exterminate the male inhabitants of the town was implemented, were clearly established in the course of other proceedings before the War Crimes Tribunal. This was done in part with the cooperation of indicted Bosnian Serbs who admitted guilt, such as the above-mentioned Deronjić, who confessed his responsibility for terrible crimes in the east Bosnian town of Bratunac, and two other officers of the Bosnian Serb army, Momir Nikolić and Dragan Obrenović. We are dealing here with a wide-ranging operation (called Krivaja after the spring of 1995) planned by Ratko Mladić, which means that it is practically impossible that Milošević knew nothing about it. It is more likely that he was kept fully informed. This aside, there is evidence that on 7 July, when the operation was in full swing, Ratko Mladić met with him. Deronjić himself has stated that on 8 July Karadžić told him in person that all Muslims in Srebrenica would be killed. It is thus possible to assess the import of Wesley Clarke’s testimony (December 2003). On 13 September 1995 he asked Milošević why, despite his influence with the Bosnian Serbs, he had allowed General Mladić ‘to kill so many people in Srebrenica’. Milošević replied incautiously: ‘Well, General Clarke, I told him not to do it but he would not listen.’

Translated from Helsinška povelja (Belgrade), March-April 2006


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