Former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic may be too ill for his war crimes and genocide trial to continue, an independent lawyer said today.
The UN court, sitting in The Hague, delayed the opening of his defence case today due to concerns about his health.
Judges said doctors for the 62-year-old Serb had urgently warned he needed rest, and discussed details of his medical troubles in open session.
Reading from a doctor’s report, presiding Judge Patrick Robinson said Milosevic had suffered “organ damage” to his left ventricle due to high blood pressure and that it would not be sensible for him to begin presenting his defence as originally planned.
Milosevic, who is defending himself, appeared relaxed and fit in the court, and objected when Robinson began discussing his medical file but was overruled.
Steven Kay, one of the independent lawyers assigned to ensure a fair trial for Milosevic, said fresh medical evidence put the continuation of the case in question.
“It’s quite clear over the past five months that his health had been gradually declining,” Kay told the panel of three judges. Based on new medical reports, “he is plainly not fit enough this week,” to appear in court.
Milosevic had been scheduled to give a four-hour opening statement. His fragile health has repeatedly delayed the trial since it began in February 2002.
In his defence, Milosevic had been expected to deny responsibility for atrocities committed during the wars in Croatia, Bosnia and the Serbian province of Kosovo, and accuse Western governments of hypocrisy, in what he calls a trial motivated by politics rather than justice.
Milosevic, who insists in defending himself, suffers heart problems and related high blood pressure. On Friday, the tribunal announced a two-hour delay of the start of today’s court session, but gave no explanation. The hearing actually began a further 15 minutes later.
The trial resumed after a four-month break since the prosecution wrapped up its case. Prosecutors questioned nearly 300 witnesses and introduced reams of documents, videos and other evidence.
Milosevic’s courtroom performance may foreshadow what to expect from former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, the second former national leader to be accused of war crimes.
Milosevic has so far used his trial as an opportunity to grandstand for supporters at home, a situation US and Iraqi authorities will be eager to avoid at Saddam’s trial.
He has pleaded innocent to any wrongdoing, and is expected on Monday to challenge the authority of the court. His strategy will likely include an attempt to turn the tables and blame the UN member states that created the court, especially the United States and its Nato allies, for alleged war crimes of their own.
Despite his poor health, Milosevic has insisted on defending himself, greatly slowing the pace of his trial, which began in February 2002 and now reaches the halfway mark.
In his opening statement, Milosevic was expected to criticise former US President Bill Clinton, Prime Minister Tony Blair and leaders of other Nato countries.
He has demanded that Clinton and 1,600 others, many of them prominent politicians, appear to testify at his trial. But he will have just 150 days to present his case, and the court has said he must give good reasons why any witness should appear.
Milosevic has argued in the past that a 1999 crackdown he ordered on ethnic Albanian Muslims in Kosovo was undertaken to protect the Serb minority there. He claims Nato’s 78 day bombing campaign, which drove his troops from the region, caused civilian deaths.
He also claims that as president of a crumbling Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, he did not have control over ethnic Serb troops in neighbouring Croatia and Bosnia. He says he can’t be held responsible for any crimes committed after those countries declared independence from federal Yugoslavia and Serb minorities rebelled.
An estimated 200,000 people on all sides died in fighting that came with the disintegration of Yugoslavia. More than 7,000 Muslim men and boys were massacred by Serb troops at Srebrenica, Bosnia, in a single week in July 1995 – the event that is at the heart of Milosevic’s genocide charge.
Monday’s hearing will be presided over by a three-judge panel led by Jamaican judge Patrick Robinson. The former lead judge, Richard May, quit the court in February due to a grave illness whose nature the court did not disclose. He died last week.
Milosevic has a weak heart and high blood pressure, and has repeatedly complained of fatigue and stress. His trial has been delayed for months because of his illnesses, and hearings are only held three days a week at the request of his doctors.