Testifying for the defence of Milosevic

I had seen the ousted Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic a few times in my many visits to Belgrade during the 1990s.

Now, here he was in a small, clean but spartan locked room in the bowels of the building housing the tribunal, in blue shirt, red tie, looking a little slimmer, very calm and utterly disdainful of the process of his trial.

Watching Milosevic a few feet away across a table, chain-smoking Davidoff cigarettes and using a plastic beaker containing water as an ashtray, was one of those times when you want to pinch yourself.

I have worked in the Balkans since the mid-1980s, so know the region well. I covered all the conflicts from Croatia to Bosnia and then Kosovo and the Nato bombardment of Serbia.

I have long been accustomed to swimming against the tide of both Western governments and many fellow journalists when covering the Balkans.

Trying to tell the truth as I see it has often put me at loggerheads with colleagues who — either through ignorance of the complexities of the region or because they are too cosy with Western politicians — have accepted without question the propaganda lines pushed by the West since the early 1990s.

Anyone questioning the Western line has often been tagged "Serb lover". Yet going against the grain has cost me dear over the years. Swimming against the tide used to be a regular part of journalism — sadly, it seems increasingly rare.

I suffer from secondary breast cancer, so even travelling to The Hague was physically difficult. But the disease has also increased my desire to try to see the truth of the political situation in the former Yugoslavia revealed.

Since I had been in Kosovo during the Nato bombardment and the fighting between the ethnic Albanian KLA and Yugoslav regular and irregular forces, Milosevic’s lawyers wanted me to bear witness to what I had seen on the ground, which was apparently at odds with some of the charges contained in the 170-page indictment against Milosevic.

I have always believed that the wars in the former Yugoslavia were far more subtle than Western governments had wanted the public and journalists to believe. The West had wanted everyone to believe the conflicts were essentially fights of good against evil, and that Serbs were the major malfactors and everyone else — Muslims, ethnic Albanians, Croats — were innocent victims. It was clear to me on the ground that every side was armed, and every side had civilians who suffered. It is against that background that I agreed to testify for Milosevic’s defence team. It was not Milosevic the man I was defending, but the truth as far as I could tell it.

Like many journalists, I have covered more than my share of court cases. But I have never felt so belittled in my life as during the cross-examination I underwent at the war crimes tribunal last month.

I had been given two long sessions on two separate days of briefing with Milosevic and one of his lawyers, going over and over his indictments — all labelled as crimes against humanity — as he ascertained when I was at various places and at times directly relating to some of the charges against him.

On the day before I gave evidence, I took Milosevic two croissants I secreted from the hotel breakfast bar. The former Yugoslav leader had a penchant for the French pastries.

The days were extremely long for Milosevic and his team. Very often he was in court from 9am until after 2pm; briefing witnesses from 2.30pm until 5 or 6pm; then going over paperwork back at the detention centre.

Milosevic almost always addressed the court in Serbian, but spoke to me in near perfect English. He spoke with a calm determination, tinged with frustration and bitter humour about what he and his team claimed was a show trial.

The former President had asked for permission to seek medical treatment in Russia for his heart ailment and high blood pressure. The authorities in The Hague accused Milosevic of not taking his medication, saying blood tests show low levels of the drugs — a claim which brought scornful laughter. "The guards are there when I take the medication,"

he said.

He had asked for a doctor selected by the tribunal to take a blood test before and after taking his pills to try to prove his point that he had pathologically low absorption rates of the medicines.

This was carried out by a Dutch physician, but while I was there, Milosevic and his lawyer were agitated because they were finding it hard to access the doctor’s report.

When I finally got my day in court on 3 February, I spent about three and a half hours being questioned by Milosevic, this time in Serbian with a simultaneous translation over a headphone, about what I had seen at various places and on specific dates. I made it clear at the beginning that I was speaking only about what I had seen, and other journalists had witnessed different events.

Then it was the turn of the prosecution barrister, Geoffrey Nice. He presented page after page of a book I wrote about the break-up of Yugoslavia and my time in Kosovo during the Nato bombardment, which, in isolation, appeared to contradict the spirit of the evidence I had just given. When I tried to elaborate, I was told merely to answer "yes or no" to whether I had written the various passages.

It was insinuated that I have some sort of special relationship with Milosevic because I was able to interview the overthrown President’s daughter.

I in fact met her through a colleague — former Times Eastern Europe correspondent Dessa Trevisan, now aged 80.

She was portrayed by Mr Nice as an anti-Milosevic journalist whom, he insinuated, was more balanced in her reporting. I was not given an opportunity to explain that I had met Milosevic’s daughter only because I happened to visit Dessa’s home in Montenegro at the same time as her.

I was subjected to a barrage of questions that I felt I was not given the chance to answer and was left squirming in my chair. Then it was all over.

The three judges thanked me politely for giving evidence, and a smiling usher led me from the courtroom.

The only shreds of comfort I could glean were from many Serbs who had seen the performance as it was broadcast on Serbian television. Even the anti-Milosevic Serbs said I had done the right thing. I was waiting to be heard if I was to be called to give evidence again when Milosevic died. I’d have liked to think that I could help ensure the truth would out. But mostly I hope the next generation of journalists realises the huge responsibility they bear to question the powers that be.

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