Slobbo's flying circus

by PAUL HARRIS, Daily Mail

Poor old Slobodan Milosevic. Here he was, an innocent victim of Nato aggression and all its corrupt justice. How could they even say those things about him, he kept asking?

Why could no one see that his illegal trial was a crime against the truth? His voice bellowed around the court as if he was addressing the crowd with a loud-hailer.

This, in all its spectacle, was vintage Slobbo. He had finally brought his flying circus to town. And for four hours yesterday, he tossed all his self-defence balls into the air and juggled clumsily to keep them aloft.

By the time he got to the part where he played the falsely-accused victim, banging on about human rights, there were probably a thousand minds urging the judge to cut the microphone. Most of us had already spent a great deal of time looking at the clock anyway.

But even minus sound, the former Yugoslav president clearly wouldn't have gone away.

From his little circus ring at one end of the most important war crime hearing for half a century, he crassly tried to evoke sympathy by showing us countless pictures of corpses.

One was of a severed head. Another was of a mother and child in the mud. All innocent casualties of Nato bombing in Kosovo, he claimed (except the ethnic Albanians in their mass grave, of course - they were allegedly murdered by the Kosovo Liberation Army for refusing to support the cause).

He had already screened a documentary video which, he claimed, exposed the lies and propaganda of the West. Now he conducted his defence with finger-stabbing armmovements like a politician delivering an oration, which is precisely what he was.

Everywhere you turned in court, there were pictures of the man on screen. It resembled one of those interminable state broadcasts that everyone was once compelled to watch in the country he used to rule. It was almost as if he was back in business.

And that might have been the key to Milosevic's breathtakingly bravado performance yesterday. For the audience he was trying to reach was clearly not the lawyers or the public gallery, but former Yugoslavia and world opinion.

Back home in his beloved Serbia, they apparently cheered and applauded his words. Upstairs in court number one at the war crime tribunal in The Hague, however, the atmosphere was markedly different.

We should have guessed from his opening words that it was going to be a marathon. Bang on 9.30am, he turned to the judge and said: 'I assume that according to the rules you have explained to me, I won't be interrupted?' No-one heard if the ever-patient Mr Richard May replied, but all Milosevic needed was the nod.

His home movies consisted of a couple of news programmes, one by a German TV company, which he edited so that it challenged the perception of who were really the good guys and bad guys in the bloody war of 1999, when countless TV screens were filled with humbling images of refugees being driven from their homes.

Milosevic maintained yesterday that they fled not because the Serbs were trying to wipe out an entire race, but because of the ceaseless American bombing raids and the fanaticism of the KLA, who executed non-believers. That was his story anyway. That documentary, he said, was merely 'an atom of the truth in an ocean of lies'. A foreign TV crew dashed away with another soundbite in the can.

Then Milosevic gave us a slideshow. From his ringmaster's seat, he motioned a lawyer to act as projectionist. Quite what the impact was of forcing the judges to watch endless scenes of carnage and destruction, only they can decide.

The point, it appears, was to demonstrate that Nato forces were the murderers, and not he. He conducted it with the dignity and humanity you might expect. 'Severed head,' he announced, adding a brief claim about what had happened. Then, to the projectionist: 'Next slide!'

Many of the photographs on which he relied, incidentally, are in a whacking great volume that Serbian authorities hand out as recommended reading for visiting Western journalists. The captions, of course, will have been composedpost-war in Belgrade, with all the reliability and impartiality which that implies.

Part of what the former dictator was attempting to do yesterday was to rebut the allegations made against him these past few days by the prosecution. He also tried painstakingly to put in context some quotes and actions that had been attributed to him.

On the first day of the case, for example, prosecuting lawyers highlighted a line from a rousing speech that Milosevic gave to a Serbian rally, using it to suggest that he was geeing up his people for war. Not so, he told the court.

'Actually it was a very good speech, let me say.' In fact he had arranged yesterday for a transcript of the whole lot to be faxed to him from Belgrade, and now he was going to read every word to the court. Even the judge checked the clock this time.

It should be said that Milosevic was looking immeasurably chirpier yesterday than at any time in public since his arrest seven months ago. Wriggling out of things, after all, is what bloodstained dictators are good at.

Interestingly, he still spoke in the present tense about the office snatched from him last year after he was toppled in Belgrade. 'As president of Serbia I am responsible for Serbia,' he told the court.

The 60-year-old grandfather has still not appointed any defence counsel - although some of the ringside seats are occupied by a clutch of attentive human rights lawyers, two of whom in their pony-tails look like escapees from Willie Nelson's backing group.

You have to keep reminding yourself why everyone is here. Milosevic faces 66 charges relating to crimes in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo, including genocide. Effectively, the allegation is that he presided over the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people.

During the previous two days of the hearing, Mr Geoffrey Nice QC had recalled scenes of ' unspeakable suffering' throughout the Balkans under Milosevic's 13-year rule. Murder, rape, torture and execution on a scale not seen since Nazi Germany have all been outlined. For these victims there were no human rights, no defence, no appeal.

But Milosevic was not only ready to challenge the morbid statistics - he produced his own. Of all the people killed by Nato aggression in Serbia, he said, a third were children. Flicking through the paperwork that he had carried into court in a leather briefcase, he declared that the bombs destroyed greater numbers of health centres and kindergartens than tanks. All the casualties were victims of 'evil do-ers', he said.

No right-thinking person would suggest that Milosevic should not get a fair trial. But justice occasionally needed to be witnessed through gritted teeth yesterday.

Chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte spent much of the day with her head wearily on one hand. Mr Nice twiddled neutrally with his pen as Mr Nasty stole the show.

Milosevic - who will also call his own witnesses - is expected to continue his defence statement today. After that, there's only another two years to run.