Walls Are Closing In on Milosevic

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic has made a career of hiding from reality, but as a war crimes prisoner, he can no longer run from it.

For all the bluster on display at his first appearance before the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia last week, Milosevic is now utterly bereft of power and privilege.

And in what his victims would probably see as a fitting irony, the man accused of stoking four Balkan wars by convincing fellow Serbs that they were surrounded by enemies is now himself trapped in the tribunal detention unit where the 38 other prisoners, whether Serbian, Croatian or Muslim, certainly blame him for putting them there.

Isolated for his own safety, he can get fresh air and exercise only in a cage attached to his 10-by-17-foot cell. He must submit to physical examinations and the indignity of 24-hour surveillance to ensure that he doesn't take the route that killed both his parents--suicide. If he wants to use the conjugal room during his wife's visits, he has to wait his turn. And he must endure questioning by prosecutors whether he recognizes tribunal authority or not.

Meanwhile, banking officials in Switzerland are poring over suspect accounts to return to Yugoslavia any state money he might have squirreled away.

Even with the small comforts the detention unit affords, the 59-year-old accused of masterminding the past decade of bloody chaos in his homeland will be hard put to maintain any illusions of grandeur in the each-day-like-the-last-one monotony of life behind bars.

After his dramatic extradition and arraignment, there was a flurry of protests by his dwindling supporters at home in Belgrade, the Yugoslav and Serbian capital, and offers from prominent international attorneys to defend him when he is put on trial next year.

But with each passing day, the furor in Yugoslavia eases and the nationalist rabble he empowered shrinks against a tide of democratic reform that is drawing generous support from the outside world.

There will be ample time for Milosevic to come to grips with reality, although there is no guarantee that contemplation will bring him to see any error in his ways.

In fact, the deposed strongman whose career has spanned law, international banking, Communist Party politics and military provocation is still on track to play the role of nationalist martyr. Milosevic's refusal to hire defense counsel or enter a plea to the charges of crimes against humanity signals a strategy of casting himself as the victim.

Those evasive actions buy time, but that is a commodity Milosevic now has too much of. Well-practiced moves of delay and obfuscation helped create a mirage of glory throughout his career even as pieces of Yugoslavia slipped from his control. Now, the same tactics are only serving to postpone his day in court--his slim chance of escaping a lifetime of incarceration.

The stalling is also allowing prosecution investigators to more thoroughly comb the trails between the worst atrocities committed in Europe since World War II and the man they believe designed them and supervised their execution.

Those probes, though, are more for insurance, as Chief Prosecutor Carla Del Ponte insists that her staff already has the goods on Milosevic or he wouldn't have been indicted in the first place.

Among the mounting piles of evidence the tribunal is working with is a plan intercepted by German troops and intelligence agents in the Balkans and delivered to the tribunal two years ago. The evidence reconstructs the deportations and murders of ethnic Albanians from the Serbian province of Kosovo--an operation known as Operation Horseshoe--and is the foundation of the tribunal's four-count indictment against Milosevic.

German Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping says the evidence shows that by early January 1999, there was a formal campaign underway aimed at the "ethnic cleansing" of Kosovo, disproving Belgrade's claim that the mass disruptions and killings were instigated by the NATO attack on Yugoslavia that began March 24. The evidence is a compilation of information from refugees interviewed after their deportations, from intelligence sources and from intercepted communications between Yugoslav troops, paramilitary units and police in the field and their commanders in Belgrade, says Scharping.

"Obviously I, as a member of the government, can't talk publicly about the information we got from intelligence," he told The Times in an interview in Berlin.

That includes whether his forces were able to put their hands on actual documents attesting to Operation Horseshoe and its author. But he suggests there was unmistakable method to the Balkan madness that provoked NATO to intervene.

"Have you ever seen in human history that 1 million people can be driven out of their homes and villages without a grand design?" Scharping asked. "Obviously, Milosevic was the political head and the political leader of all that Yugoslav armed forces and Yugoslav police and Yugoslav paramilitaries did at that time."

He exudes certainty that the evidence delivered here will be sufficient to secure Milosevic's conviction.

"I'm confident this will happen," Scharping said.

A verdict of any nature is still a long way off, probably another two years at the earliest, say those familiar with the tribunal's workings. Even if Milosevic sticks to his defiant position that he needs no legal assistance because the tribunal is "illegal" and its charges against him "false," months will be required for prosecutors to disclose the evidence they plan to present at trial so he has an opportunity to prepare a rebuttal.

If he fails to cooperate, the pretrial justice assigned to his case must conduct lengthy reviews to ensure that he gets a fair trial despite his own obstructions. And Milosevic can postpone the whole pretrial process by challenging the legitimacy of the court and the impartiality of any justice assigned to hear it.

But at the end of each confrontation, after each thrust and parry, Milosevic will be returned to the Scheveningen Prison cellblock for war crimes suspects. There, when he is alone with his memories and endless days to fill, there will be time for reality to sink in.

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