Milosevic puts Nato leaders on trial

Gillian Sandford

Tuesday September 19, 2000

Belgrade - Yugoslavia began trying western leaders yesterday for their part in the Nato bombing of Yugoslavia last year, accusing them of crimes against humanity and violating the country's territorial sovereignty.

The trial is expected to end immediately before Sunday's presidential and general elections with sentences of 15-20 years on Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, the former Nato secretary general Xavier Solana and European commander General Wesley Clarke, among others.

As President Slobodan Milosevic's re-election campaign gathered pace before polling day, his anti-Nato rhetoric found an echo in the trial.

A row of 14 empty chairs was set opposite the panel of judges in Belgrade's palace of justice, each seat labelled with the name of the person charged in absentia.

It took three hours to read the charges accusing them of crimes against humanity, initiating an aggressive war, using illegal weapons such as cluster bombs, and violating the territorial sovereignty of Yugoslavia.

The prosecutor read out the names of 503 civilians, 240 soldiers and 147 police officers whom he said were killed during the bombing.

At the weekend three members of the student-based resistance movement Otpor, were jailed for 10 days for spraying graffiti on walls in the capital.

Their lawyer, Biljana Kajganic, said the trial in the Belgrade police headquarters in was "incorrect" and she would appeal against the verdict.

The latest poll shows Mr Milosevic with 27% and Mr Kostunica with 32% of the vote. But 30% of the electorate have not yet decided or say they will not vote.

In a further sign of jitters, the state newspaper Politika carried a vitriolic attack on the presidential opposition chal lenger Vojislav Kostunica. One analyst in Belgrade said he believed the article, which portrays Mr Kostunica as a serial adulterer and a liar, could sway many voters.

The Nato show trial was dismissed by a western diplomat as "a pre-election stunt". But it plays to a campaign by the Milosevic regime which has exploited the incomprehension and anger felt by many people toward Nato and the west.

State newspapers and television carried long items from the trial and are expected to report vivid testimony and show gruesome pictures of the damage inflicted on civilians.

One of the crimes against civilians with which the western leaders are charged is the bombing of the state television station RTS.

Testimonies were read, including that of a desk editor who spoke of the smell in the building. "I found two men who were completely bloody," he said. "The smell and the smoke was pervasive. I had blood dripping from my legs."

The evidence was accompanied by footage of burned bod ies under collapsed masonry.

The public reaction to the trial will become clear in the coming days.

Zanka Stojanovic, who lost her 26-year-old son Nebojsa in the RTS attack, said she blamed Nato and Mr Milosevic. "We are accusing Nato leaders and domestic politicians as the ones who are responsible for this," she said. "Our people were not good diplomats and to let such a terrible thing happen at the end of the 20th century is a shame for human kind."

But she took no comfort from the trial: "It is a circus theatre. Those people who are behaving as judges and lawyers, those people are clowns, because if they are judging those people who are not here, then they can judge those people who are here."

Original article