Show trial at the Hague

Philip Ferguson plf13 at
Wed Feb 20 22:46:43 MST 2002

ending 17 February 2002


by James Heartfield

With the opening of the trial of Slobodan Milosevic in The Hague, the
international community has at last brought to bear its combined legal
authority against the so-called 'Butcher of Belgrade'. The result is
proceedings with all the majesty and gravitas of a social security appeal
tribunal. The trial is taking place in something resembling a school
classroom. It is presided over by a British provincial trial judge.
Second-rate prosecutors have been hamming it up shamelessly for the cameras,
recounting second-hand atrocity propaganda culled from the Western press,
secret services and the Bosnian Government's advertising agency. But then at
the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia such stories
will be evidence.

The procedure and rules of evidence at the Hague are more than one-sided,
they are a parody of justice. The defendant Milosevic was not allowed a
defence lawyer of his own choice - but fearful that he would simply refuse
to put up a defence at all, the court appointed a 'friend of the court' to
make his defence for him. Backstage, Judge and prosecutor share the same
office, but defence lawyers are barred. The Hague court allows secret
witnesses, and hearsay and double hearsay evidence that would be shot down
in flames in any real courtroom. In other words, unidentified witnesses may
make allegations not only about events that they did not witness but were
only told about by someone else, but even about events that the person who
told them did not witness but only heard about from yet another person. If
evidence linking Milosevic to genocide cannot be found, then rumours of
genocide will just have to do. And if the judge should still somehow fail to
convict, then the prosecution can always appeal.

The court procedures appear to based upon Peter Cook's skit for Amnesty
International, the Secret Policeman's Ball, where the judge announces that
he will hear the evidence before pronouncing the defendant guilty, or a
farce by Dario Fo. These crankier features of the Hague Tribunal, though,
are not incidental. Rather they flow from its underlying character. Though
it is performed as if it were a court of justice, the show-trial is in fact
a political act, masquerading as a legal process. The aim of the performance
is to justify the Western powers' breaking up the old Yugoslav federation by
making Milosevic the scapegoat for all the slaughter there. In fact the West
wilfully provoked the war, promoting separatist ethnic movements in Bosnia
and Kosovo.

To the palpable irritation of Western commentators and the judge, the trial
format means that Milosevic is allowed put his side of the story, at least
in opening statements - though even here, he was interrupted and badgered.
Pointedly, even an East European nationalist like Milosevic managed to look
convincing next to the shabby court proceedings. The Serb leader's strategy
is to address the underlying political case against Yugoslavia, by turning
the tables on the Western powers that started the war. Prosecutor Carla Del
Ponte will argue that these are not the issues being tried, and have his
evidence ruled inadmissible.

Procedurally, the lawyers have Milosevic where they want him. But in the end
the great goal of the West in the Yugoslav conflict - the trial of Milosevic
- is proving to be a failure. His unwillingness to kow-tow makes the
prosecution look like what it is, a political argument dressed up as
justice. More importantly, the trial will not satisfy the need of those
Western intellectuals who clamoured for it in the first place. No imitation
court proceedings could make the Yugoslav conflict into a just war, any more
than they could make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. The world's media
instinctively sense the unsatisfactory character of the trial, pushing it
down the front pages to make way for the Enron hearings, the revelations in
the Naomi Campbell case, and even the skeletons in Jacques Chirac's closet.

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