United Nations war crimes judges will consider whether to convict the former president of Yugoslavia of crimes against humanity and genocide for acts committed during the Balkans wars of the 1990s.
The charges stem from the findings of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), established by the United Nations in 1993.
In their opening statements, prosecutors said the trial would force Milosevic to come face-to-face with his victims for the first time.
“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,” said the tribunal’s chief prosecutor Carla del Ponte.
“Some of the incidents revealed an almost medieval savagery and a calculated cruelty that went far beyond the bounds of legitimate warfare,” del Ponte added.
Prosecutors described reported atrocities perpetrated by Serb troops under Milosevic’s control that included throwing women down wells and burning children alive.
Milosevic is charged with genocide in the 1992-95 Bosnian war as well as crimes against humanity in Croatia in 1991-92 and Kosovo in 1999. There are 66 specific charges contained in the three indictments, all of which carry a life sentence if found guilty.
Appearing calm and occasionally smiling, Milosevic was silent during the opening remarks, but feverishly took notes as the charges against him were announced.
Milosevic refuses to accept the legitimacy of the tribunal, branding it a tool of the West. He is also refusing the tribunal’s advice to select a lawyer for his defense. A trained lawyer without practice, Milosevic will represent himself. He is expected to give his opening statements on Wednesday.
War Crimes trial expected to take two years
While the opening statements painted a broad picture of all three conflicts, prosecutors plan to begin with evidence relating to Kosovo. The Bosnia and Croatia cases against Milosevic won’t start until July.
The Kosovo phase of the trial will concentrate on the reported murder of 900 Kosovo Albanians by Serbian security forces and the expulsion of some 800,000 non-Serbs from their homes in 1998-99.
Milosevic has said the trial is a sham and is simply an effort by NATO and the U.S. to cover-up war crimes committed by the alliance during its bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999.
Prosecutors argue that the expulsion and murders were part of Milosevic’s plan for a greater Serbia.
Trial experts contend the Milosevic case represents a broadening of international criminal justice. Milosevic is the first head of state indicted for war crimes while in office and a conviction would show that heads of state can be held accountable for war crimes that take place in their own borders.
The trial, the biggest war crimes case in Europe since Nazi officials were tried at Nuremberg after World War II, is expected to take two years.