Former President Slobodan Milosevic will ask the Constitutional Court to invalidate a decree that sets the stage for him and other alleged war criminals to be handed over to a U.N. tribunal, one of his lawyers said Sunday.
The court will also be asked to issue "a temporary measure to stop the implementation of this decree until it is established whether it is in accordance with the Yugoslav Constitution," said Toma Fila, head of Milosevic's legal team. The appeal will be filed today, he said.
A reformist majority in the Yugoslav Cabinet approved the decree Saturday after failing to win sufficient parliamentary support to pass a similar measure as a law. Fila called its action "legal piracy."
"This was a political decision, and it renders the law helpless against such bullying methods," Fila said. "I know no country on the face of the Earth that would agree to extradite a person who was once its elected president."
Milosevic, who is being held in a Belgrade prison on domestic charges of corruption and abuse of power, has been indicted by the U.N. war crimes tribunal at The Hague for alleged crimes against humanity in connection with his troops' brutal treatment of ethnic Albanians in the province of Kosovo.
The indictment was issued in 1999 during the 78-day bombing campaign waged against Yugoslavia's dominant republic, Serbia, by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and aimed at ending the crackdown in Kosovo.
The reform-oriented coalition that took power after Milosevic was ousted last year has been trying to meet a U.S. demand that Yugoslavia show cooperation with the tribunal as a condition of American participation in a donors conference set to open Friday in Brussels.
Officials in Yugoslavia and Serbia hope the conference will approve about $1.2 billion in aid, roughly half from the United States. They also hope the conference will initiate steps toward forgiving a large portion of the country's $12-billion debt and restructuring payments on the rest of it.
Critics of the decree say it is illegal because the constitutions of both Yugoslavia and Serbia forbid extradition of their citizens. Reformers and many Western governments argue that a transfer does not amount to an extradition because the tribunal is a U.N. institution, not a foreign state.
Washington praised the decree Sunday but said U.S. participation in the Brussels meeting remained uncertain.
"No decision has been made with regard to the donors conference, but we welcome any steps that the Yugoslav government takes with regards to cooperation with the international war crimes tribunal," said Brenda Greenberg, a State Department spokeswoman.
About 300 Milosevic supporters rallied Sunday evening outside the prison where he is being held, shouting "Long live Slobodan!" "Down with fascists!" "Treason! Treason!" and "We don't want decrees, we want laws!"
One elderly man dressed in a black pinstripe suit carried a handwritten placard declaring, "America is the world's largest criminal terrorist organization, more sleazy and brutal than fascism."
"We are here because we are trying to fight for our freedom," said Ivana Petrovic, 29, an unemployed former travel agency employee. Petrovic charged that those who passed the decree "sold our country" by preparing to turn over Milosevic and other indictees to The Hague.
"Our family lives very hard," she said. "We sold our car for food. But we don't agree with selling people."
Petrovic noted that despite a dramatic change in the world's attitude toward Belgrade authorities since October, when the former opposition took power, living standards have worsened for many people.
"Now the whole world loves us, and most of the people cannot buy bread and milk anymore," she said. "We lost everything for nothing. We lost our dignity. . . . I don't agree that we have to forget what the United States government did to us. That is not fair. We were fighting for our people. We were not aggressors."
Attorney Fila said he met with Milosevic on Sunday and showed him the decree. The former president "thinks that the Hague tribunal is an illegitimate body" and that the Yugoslav Constitution prohibits extradition of indictees to it, Fila said.
Mirjana Markovic, Milosevic's wife, also met with him in prison Sunday. And a party she heads, the Yugoslav Left, issued a statement calling the decree an "amoral, anti-constitutional, illegal and anti-Serb" measure that turns Yugoslavia into a "NATO colony."
Times staff writer Norman Kempster in Washington contributed to this report.