Radiating contempt for the outside world, which has called him to account for a decade of bloody mayhem, former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic defied a war crimes tribunal Tuesday by refusing to retain defense counsel or enter a plea.
"I consider this tribunal false tribunal and indictments false indictments," Milosevic told the court in imperfect English at his initial appearance on four counts of war crimes, for which he would spend the rest of his life in prison if convicted. "It is illegal, being not appointed by U.N. General Assembly, so I have no need to appoint counsel to illegal organ."
The man held responsible by many of his countrymen and much of the international community for four wars that left more than 200,000 people dead and millions homeless staged a classic performance for the tribunal, which was created by the U.N. Security Council in 1993.
His head held high, jaw thrust forward and his six brief comments dripping with disdain, Milosevic struck an arrogant and combative pose at this early opportunity in what promises to be a long confrontation.
Presiding Judge Richard May offered Milosevic the chance to have the full 54-page indictment read to him, to which the defendant responded: "That's your problem."
May said the court would treat that reply as a waiver of Milosevic's right to hear the charges against him in their entirety, then asked him if he was prepared to enter a plea or preferred to think it over for as many as 30 days.
With bulldog tenacity and switching to his native Serbo-Croatian language, Milosevic launched into a diatribe against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which bombed Yugoslavia in 1999 to halt "ethnic cleansing" of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, a province of the country's dominant republic, Serbia.
"This trial's aim is to produce false justification for the war crimes of NATO committed in Yugoslavia," Milosevic said when asked if he was ready to plead.
"Mr. Milosevic, I asked you a question: Do you want to enter your plea today, or are you asking for adjournment to consider the matter further?" May pressed.
"I have given you my answer," Milosevic snapped, launching into another excoriation of "this so-called tribunal" before May cut him off with the warning that "this is not the time to make speeches."
The presiding judge said the court was interpreting the response from Milosevic, who pointedly declined translation headphones, as "failure to enter a plea," and entered not guilty pleas on all four counts on the defendant's behalf.
Twelve minutes after opening the most-watched proceeding in the tribunal's eight-year history, the court adjourned until Aug. 27.
Milosevic's refusal to recognize the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia's right to try him may reflect a well-considered strategy to make Chief Prosecutor Carla Del Ponte's burden more difficult, as she will have to tread warily against a defendant making no effort to cooperate in the proceedings.
But Milosevic's demeanor might just as well emanate from a perception of himself as the victim, railing as he did against NATO. That martyred posture still plays to his nationalist supporters back home, although to fewer than he might imagine in the wake of his stealthy extradition. A few thousand Yugoslav loyalists have attended protests against his Thursday hand-over to tribunal authorities, but the majority of his countrymen appear to view his departure as a chance for a fresh start with European neighbors.
Dressed in a slate-blue suit, a pale blue shirt and a striped tie in the red, white and blue of the Yugoslav flag, Milosevic was escorted into Courtroom No. 1 of the tribunal five minutes ahead of the three-judge panel conducting his arraignment. He immediately sat down at the defense table to one side of the courtroom, crossing and recrossing his legs with studied indifference. When the judges entered, he had to be nudged by a guard into standing after failing to heed the bailiff's "all rise" call.
Milosevic appeared bemused by the packed public gallery on the other side of a bulletproof glass partition, where 80 journalists watched the short appearance. He glared scornfully at reporters he recognized from his days in the limelight in Belgrade, the Yugoslav and Serbian capital, where he presided over a decade of brutal warfare before being toppled by pro-reform forces in October.
Glancing at his watch as he was escorted out of the courtroom, Milosevic commented dryly to a guard: "Ten minutes."
The brevity of his first contact with the court, though, is unlikely to herald short or expeditious proceedings ahead.
Even if Milosevic continues to refuse defense counsel, the prosecution is obliged to disclose its evidence and witnesses in order to give him an opportunity to prepare a rebuttal, said Jim Landale, chief spokesman for the tribunal.
Tribunal authorities will continue to urge Milosevic to hire an attorney, Landale said. If Milosevic persists in refusing to acknowledge the court's procedures against him, a judge could assign a lawyer to avoid later claims that the court abridged the accused's right to mount a defense.
Two Yugoslav attorneys who assisted Milosevic in Belgrade during his court appearances there on domestic corruption charges, Zdenko Tomanovic and Dragan Krgovic, flew to The Hague on Monday to meet with the deposed strongman at the tribunal's detention unit at Scheveningen Prison. But Milosevic dismissed them with instructions to inform the court and media that he had no intention of cooperating with proceedings he considers illegal.
Milosevic, a law school graduate, has the right to defend himself if he chooses, court officials confirmed. But May warned Milosevic that such a course might not be in the former leader's best interests, noting that the proceedings will be long and complex.
Del Ponte approached Milosevic after the arraignment to sound him out about his readiness to be interviewed by the prosecution, said her spokeswoman, Florence Hartmann.
"The prosecutor is just asking him if he is ready to cooperate with her," Hartmann said. "He is allowed to say no."
Another aide to Del Ponte later said that such contact after arraignment is routine but that the prosecutor's office makes no comments on the specifics of the exchange.
"But I can say it was a short meeting," said Jean-Jacques Joris, political advisor to Del Ponte.
Milosevic and four top lieutenants were first indicted in May 1999 on charges that include forced deportation of ethnic Albanians, murder, and persecution on ethnic or religious grounds.
Del Ponte expanded the charges last week to include more cases of killing, torture, looting and expulsion in Kosovo. Further charges alleging war crimes in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia are also expected.
Preparing for trial may take a year and the proceedings an additional year.
Del Ponte has several witnesses to the Kosovo atrocities under protection, and dozens more still in the province will be contacted in the coming months as the prosecution updates its case.
Del Ponte explained in an interview on the eve of the arraignment that her team is working "from the ground up" to link Milosevic with the crimes committed by underlings, presumably at his direction.
The concept of "command responsibility" was established under the last European war crimes tribunal, the Nuremberg trials of Adolf Hitler's chief accomplices.
But the one case before the Yugoslav tribunal that attempted to hold a commander to account for the actions of his subordinates led to acquittal on all charges. Gen. Zejnil Delalic was the Muslim commander of the Celebici camp in Bosnia, where Serb and Croat prisoners were tortured and killed. Prosecutors, however, failed to establish a direct link between him and lower-ranking officers who committed the crimes.
In the nonjury trial of Milosevic, the prosecution may be asked to show signed orders to subordinates for the crimes of which the former president is accused. It may also have to obtain testimony from field commanders that they were acting at his direction.
However, there is precedent from the World War II tribunals for a guilty verdict based on a panel's inference that the accused knew what was occurring and did nothing to stop it. Japan's wartime military governor in the Philippines, Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita, was held responsible for war crimes committed by his troops, despite there being no direct proof that he ordered them to rape and pillage the occupied territory.
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War Crimes Courtroom
The courtroom where former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is being tried is a state-of-the-art facility whose special features have been dictated by security and interpretation requirements. Bulletproof glass separates the public seating from the proceedings. A look at the court layout:
Sources: International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia; Times staff