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Four years pass, Milosevic still on trial

By Joe Sterling
CNN

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The war crimes trial of Yugoslav ex-President Slobodan Milosevic has lasted four years so far.

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(CNN) -- The war crimes trial of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic enters its fifth tedious year Sunday, and though international interest in the tribunal in the Dutch city of The Hague has waned, it has proved a useful tool in educating Serbs.

"Its greatest reverberation is in Serbia itself," where regional media have brought the crimes to center stage by airing and reporting on the proceedings, said Edgar Chen of the Coalition for International Justice, a group that supports war crimes tribunals.

Milosevic is charged with genocide and crimes against humanity in last decade's bloody Balkans conflict, and for four years, he has dragged out judicial proceedings with his political grandstanding and health-related absences.

The U.N. Security Council established the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in 1993, and Milosevic was charged with 66 counts involving war crimes during the Balkan wars.

The counts include Milosevic's role in the fighting that plagued the disputed Serbian province of Kosovo and the civil warfare that erupted in Bosnia and Croatia after the fall of Yugoslavia.

Ethnic strife raged in Yugoslavia's six republics as the nation began to dissolve after the fall of communism.

The fourth anniversary of Milosevic's trial, which began February 12, 2002, comes as other war crimes proceedings involving the Balkans, Rwanda and Iraq move forward across the globe.

"I think there have been real difficulties and problems in the Milosevic trial," said Richard Dicker, director of the international justice program for Human Rights Watch. "What will be important is the evidence that was presented to indicate the motivation and intent of Milosevic."

Milosevic is defending himself against allegations by authorities that he backed and sometimes authorized violence by Serb forces.

He faces charges of crimes against humanity, violations of the laws and customs of war and genocide, a charge emanating from the Bosnian conflict, in which thousands of Bosnian Muslims were killed or chased from their homes by Bosnian Serb forces in Srebrenica and Sarajevo. (Read about charges being filed in those massacres)

Milosevic has pleaded not guilty to all counts, saying that he wasn't responsible for ordering killings and rapes. He could be sent to prison for life if found guilty.

Prosecutors have called 293 witnesses. Among them were former NATO supreme commander Wesley Clark and Kosovar Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova, who recently died.

The prosecution closed its case in February 2004, and Milosevic was given six months to prepare his defense, which began in August 2004. So far, Milosevic has used 82 percent of his allotted time -- 296 hours out of 360. The prosecution had the same allotment.

His defense has focused solely on the Kosovo indictments, seen as the most potent because Milosevic was directly in charge of the Serb-led troops during the fighting in Kosovo, a majority Albanian area key to Serbian identity.

The former Yugoslav president has called 48 witnesses to back up his arguments. He requested more time for witnesses, but was denied.

Also, judges have cautioned Milosevic to move forward with testimony to deal with Bosnia and Croatia.

Milosevic was given access to court-appointed legal help and was granted the right to choose his own legal aides, but Milosevic chose to represent himself. However, the attorneys have remained available and have played an active role.

There have been 14 delays in the trial because of Milosevic's health, adding up to 66 trial days. Most of the sick days took place during the prosecution phase.

Because of health issues, court-appointed doctors recommended a schedule of three shortened days a week. Milosevic, meanwhile, has asked to be sent to Russia for medical treatment, but that has not been approved.

Richard Dicker of Human Rights Watch said Milosevic abused his right to self-representation. He also said the court has given Milosevic too much leeway and it should have conducted the proceeding with a firmer hand.

Instead of conducting a legal defense, Milosevic conducted "a political offense aimed at securing his place in the hearts and minds of his hard-core supporters back in Serbia," Dicker said.

CNN's Maria Dugandzic and Atia Abawi contributed to the story.

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