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2006-03-13

Slobodan Milosevic Found Dead in Hague Prison Cell: A Look at the Serbian Leader’s War Crimes and the U.S. Role in the Balkans

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Former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic was found dead Saturday in his prison cell near The Hague. He had been charged with genocide and crimes against humanity in a number of indictments spanning from the wars in Croatia and Bosnia to the fighting in Kosovo. We host a roundtable discussion on Milosevic with a Yugoslav dissident from Belgrade, and two journalists who covered the war in the Balkans: Jeremy Scahill and Chris Hedges. [includes rush transcript]

Former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic was found dead in his prison cell Saturday at the Hague. The cause of death was reported as a heart attack.

  • Alexandra Milenov, spokesperson for the International Criminal Tribunal For The Former Yugoslavia.

Milosevic had been charged with genocide and crimes against humanity in a number of indictments spanning from the wars in Croatia and Bosnia to the fighting in Kosovo. His trial was in its fourth year. Prosecutors called nearly 300 witnesses. The former Serbian leader chose to represent himself at the trial. His death comes just weeks after had had called on former President Bill Clinton to testify. Clinton, who with British Prime Minister Tony Blair led the NATO bombings of Kosovo and Yugoslavia, declined to appear.

As news of Milosevic’s death spread across the world, some of his victims said the jailed ex-Serbian leader had escaped justice.

  • Hatidza Mehmedovic, lost two sons, husband and brother in 1995 Srebrenica massacre.

Meanwhile, some of Milosevic’s supporters are claiming he was poisoned. Zdenko Tomanovic, Milosevic’s attorney, cited a letter he said the former Serbian leader wrote just one day before his death.

  • Zdenko Tomanovic, Slobodan Milosevic’s attorney.

Milosevic supporters also cited a medical reports that found traces in his sytem of drugs that would have off-set pills he has been taking for high-blood pressure. The UN dismissed speculation Milosevic had been deliberately poisoned. Hague officials involved in his prosecution said Milosevic had a history of manipulating his own health and taking unprescribed medication.

We speak with three guests who know the Balkan region well:

  • Andrej Grubacic, a Yugoslav dissident, originally from Belgrade. He’s a historian currently researching at SUNY-Binghamton.
  • Jeremy Scahill, independent journalist and currently a Puffin Writing Fellow at the Nation Institute. He covered the NATO bombings of Kosovo and Yugoslavia for Democracy Now in 1999. His latest article, available on AntiWar.Com, is "Rest Easy, Bill Clinton: Milosevic Can’t Talk Anymore." Speaking to us from Sacramento, where he will be appearing with Dahr Jamail at the First Methodist Church on Tuesday night. They will be discussing "Iraq — The Story Corporate Media Won’t Tell." For more information on the event go to WeTheMedia.TV
  • Chris Hedges, journalist and author. He was a foreign correspondent for The New York Times and is currently a senior fellow at the Nation Institute. He covered the Balkan region for several years, including the NATO bombings in 1999. He is author of "War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning" and "Losing Moses on the Freeway."

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Alexandra Milenov, a spokesperson for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

ALEXANDRA MILENOV: The tribunal has received a brief summary of the autopsy results. According to the pathologists, Slobodan Milosevic’s cause of death was a myocardial infarction. Further, the pathologists identified two heart conditions that Slobodan Milosevic suffered from, which they said would explain the myocardial infarction. The prosecution service of the Hague informs the registrar that a toxicological examination will still be carried out. The tribunal has been informed that the final report will be issued as soon as possible. Slobodan Milosevic’s remains will be released to the family tomorrow.

AMY GOODMAN: Slobodan Milosevic had been charged with genocide and crimes against humanity, a number of indictments spanning from the wars in Croatia and Bosnia to the fighting in Kosovo. His trial was in its fourth year. Prosecutors called nearly 300 witnesses. The former Serbian leader chose to represent himself at the trial. His death comes just weeks after he called on former President Bill Clinton to testify. Clinton, who with British Prime Minister Tony Blair led the NATO bombings of Kosovo and Yugoslavia, declined to appear. As news of Milosevic’s death spread across the world, some of his victims said the jailed ex-Serbian leader had escaped justice. This is a survivor of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre.

HATIDZA MEHMEDOVIC: We are interested only in justice. We know the truth. All those responsible for the crimes should go to the Hague, even if they never come back. Slobodan Milosevic didn’t deserve to die so easily. We are sorry that he died so easily.

AMY GOODMAN: A survivor of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre. Meanwhile, some of Milosevic’s supporters are claiming he was poisoned. Zdenko Tomanovic, Milosevic’s attorney, cited a letter he said the former Serbian leader wrote just one day before his death.

ZDENKO TOMANOVIC: Received a new document only a few days ago, which it could be clear, be seen that on January 12 this year, there had been found a strong drug in his bloodstream, which as it was stated in the report, is used only for the treatment of leprosy and tuberculosis. Mr. Milosevic pointed out also in his letter that they, as he mentioned, they would like to pardon me, and he was seriously concerned and he was seriously worried that he was being poisoned.

AMY GOODMAN: Milosevic’s attorney. His supporters also cited a medical report that found traces in a system of drugs that would have offset pills he has been taking for high blood pressure. The U.N. dismissed speculation Milosevic had been deliberately poisoned. Hague officials involved in his prosecution said Milosevic had a history of manipulating his own health and taking un-prescribed medication.

After break, we go to our three guests who know the Balkan region well. We’ll be joined by Andrej Grubacic, who is formerly from Belgrade, now a historian currently studying at SUNY-Binghamton. We’ll also be joined by Chris Hedges, foreign correspondent for The New York Times until recently, now a Senior Fellow at the Nation Institute, covered the Balkans for a number of years, including the NATO bombings in 1999, and wrote the book, War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning and Losing Moses on the Freeway, talking to us from Princeton. And we’ll be joined by Jeremy Scahill, Democracy Now! correspondent, independent journalist, currently the Puffin Writing Fellow at the Nation Institute, also covered the NATO bombings of Kosovo and Yugoslavia for Democracy Now! in 1999. His current article is available at AntiWar.com, "Rest Easy, Bill Clinton: Milosevic Can’t Talk Anymore." He’s going to speak to us from Sacramento.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to begin on the death of Slobodan Milosevic with Andrej Grubacic, originally from Belgrade, now here in the United States. It’s good to have you with us.

ANDREJ GRUBACIC: Good to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the death of Milosevic and his incomplete trial?

ANDREJ GRUBACIC: Unfortunately, I don’t know enough. I would say I will be a little bit more careful with what really happened, with poisoning. We don’t know anything about this, as yet. To be certain, I would be careful. But I do think this was a case of gradual poisoning of Milosevic — not gradual poisoning, but gradual attempts to get rid of Milosevic. He obviously didn’t have proper medicine and proper medical care.

AMY GOODMAN: And the fact that his trial was not complete, moving into the last, perhaps, 40 hours of the trial.

ANDREJ GRUBACIC: That was a blessing that was, as your colleague Jeremy Scahill wrote, that’s a blessing for Bill Clinton, first and foremost. It’s not a victory of justice to have Milosevic die that day in the Hague. I think things are extremely complicated. We need to speak about them in context, and Milosevic has to be understood in the context of his own reign, in his own rule in Yugoslavia. And we can talk a little bit more about this. I think that, as for the Hague tribunal, I think this was an ideal situation. Milosevic became too expensive and he became too damaging for the image of the tribunal.

AMY GOODMAN: And his history as the leader of Serbia?

ANDREJ GRUBACIC: His history of leadership — I would be more careful; he was never a leader of Serbia. He was a leader of a certain fraction of Serbian population, of 20% of the electorate of Serbia who voted him. He was never really authoritarian dictator, as he was presented, but he was not a leader of Serbia.

AMY GOODMAN: Chris Hedges, you covered the NATO bombings, have written extensively about the Balkans. Your response to the death of Slobodan Milosevic.

CHRIS HEDGES: Well, it does rob us of a process of exposing the whole complicated mess of the war and the complicity, of course, of — or the tacit complicity of the European Union and the United States, which failed to respond for three-and-a-half years to these crimes against humanity and this campaign of ethnic cleansing or genocide that was carried out largely, primarily against the Bosnian Muslims. And, yeah, it is a tragedy that he is gone.

He did have serious health problems, and it is true that he not only tried to be his own lawyer, but tried to be his own doctor, so I wouldn’t jump to hasty conclusions about how he died yet. I mean, we’ll have to wait for the toxicology report.

I think the other thing is that I feel that Milosevic, certainly at the beginning of his reign, did have very wide support, not only within Serbia, but within ethnic Serb populations in Croatia and within Bosnia. I mean, this may have soured over time, but I would be a little hesitant not to call him a leader of Serbia. I think that this sort of nationalism and euphoria over a greater Serbia was very real, and certainly many elements of Serbian society, including much of the Serbian press, got right behind him and served as, you know, a form of — essentially served as propaganda for this nationalist Serb movement. This was part of the problem, that Milosevic was able through his Serbian allies to take over the airwaves and pump forth this sort of vitriol and hate propaganda against other ethnic groups. It took him four years, by the way, of spewing out this hatred before he got one Serb, which happened to be Arkon, to cross the border and begin the campaign of killing. But there was complicity in this project by many elements of Serb society.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill, you wrote the piece this weekend, "Rest Easy, Bill Clinton: Milosevic Can’t Talk Anymore." Explain.

JEREMY SCAHILL: I think that there are sort of two lenses through which we have to look at Milosevic. On the one hand, we have the war in Bosnia that Chris Hedges was just talking about. And I think Milosevic has an extraordinarily interesting history, particularly with the United States, because, as Chris could well tell you, there were points, sustained points during the 1990s when the White House viewed Slobodan Milosevic as the key to peace. You know, he comes to the United States, his wife goes out and goes shopping with U.S. officials as they’re in the midst of these negotiations. He was very much embraced as sort of "one of our kind of guys," so to speak, you know, an investment banker, he had worked in the United States. He speaks English, and so the U.S. viewed Milosevic in a very favorable way.

It’s a classic story that’s repeated itself through the history of the United States, where they embrace these guys that later then they vilify and make out to be the, you know, the equivalent of Hitler, which Milosevic, like Saddam Hussein, was compared to Hitler many times by the United States. And so, you have this Slobodan Milosevic during the 1990s who is a friend of the United States and then very quickly turns into the sort of chief villain in the war, and once they had declared Milosevic the chief villain in the war, the plight of the Serbs became almost a non-story.

The single greatest ethnic cleansing of the war, according to the New York Times, was in August of 1995, Operation Storm and Lightning, where upwards of a quarter of a million Serbs were expelled by the Croatian military in a matter of days from the Krajina region, and so that, though, largely went — fell on deaf ears, and I’ll forever remember that long massive column of tens of thousands of Serbs having to flee their homes at the hands of the Croatian military. And so, there’s really an unfortunate reality that’s happened. As soon as Milosevic became Hitler, that then meant that the Serb victims became somehow less important than the others in the war.

The other story that’s very important. I mean, I think you can get the "Slobodan Milosevic, Butcher of the Balkans" story by reading any of his obituaries, by reading any of the coverage, so what I want to try to do is to paint a picture that gets into some of what hasn’t been discussed and isn’t going to be discussed. It wasn’t discussed in Milosevic’s life, and it’s not going to be discussed in his death.

The fact of the matter is that an incredible number of Serbs suffered as a result of that war and of Milosevic’s policies, as well, and so you had a situation where Milosevic had been discredited, and so when he started to talk to the world about the fact that you had al-Qaeda and mujahideen turning their sights on Bosnia after the defeat of the Soviets in Afghanistan and that you had scores of these mujahideen setting up camp in Bosnia to fight the Orthodox Serbs and the Catholic Croatians, no one was really listening to Milosevic, and the fact of the matter was that the United States was on the same side as those same forces in Bosnia that it was on in Afghanistan, as well.

They were organizing funding conferences for the Bosnian Muslims and working hand in hand with the very forces that would go on to attack the United States allegedly on 9/11, and Slobodan Milosevic was consistently trying to bring that to the attention of the United States to the point where you had over a thousand mujahideen who were given honorary Bosnian citizenship, following the disintegration war of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Well, then fast forward a bit to 1998. Richard Holbrooke, Bill Clinton’s envoy and eventual United Nations ambassador goes and meets with senior officials in Belgrade. He likes to boast that he was the U.S. official — the western official that met the most with Slobodan Milosevic. Well, Slobodan Milosevic and other Serb officials told Richard Holbrooke and presented him with the evidence that they had that Osama bin Laden was influencing the Kosovo Liberation Army, and in fact, senior U.S. officials had already determined the Kosovo Liberation Army to be a terrorist organization, and so Milosevic was very consistent with what U.S. information was at the time, but Richard Holbrooke and others were very key in this decision for the United States to really fund and arm the Kosovo Liberation Army.

And Milosevic, by the time his trial came around, and he was talking about this, he sounded as though he was just sort of a political opportunist talking about 9/11, talking about terrorists and mujahideen, when actually, for quite a long time, Slobodan Milosevic was raising these issues. And so, one of the things that dies or gets buried with Slobodan Milosevic is this chance to raise some of the crimes of the United States, but also the role the United States played in boosting up some very unsavory characters in that region, not the least of which is the current — is the new Prime Minister of Kosovo, a general by the name of Agim Çeku.

Amy, we’ve done reporting on him before. He was one of the leaders of Operation Storm and Lightning in Croatia that expelled upwards of a quarter of a million Serbs, also was one of the leaders of an organization in Kosovo that functioned like a death squad. He now is going to be the Prime Minister of Kosovo, and he quite possibly could be indicted, as well, by the Hague, but we won’t know. Milosevic certainly was going to raise his role, and it’s a very ominous fact that Agim Çeku is the Prime Minister of Kosovo, because this is a man who has led a campaign to expel Serbs, Romas and other minorities. So, so much for the humanitarian intervention of Bill Clinton.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy, we want to got to a clip now from Richard Holbrooke, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the NATO bombings of Kosovo and Yugoslavia. This was his reaction to Milosevic’s death.

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: I was kind of astonished. This is somebody I knew very well, but I think that justice was served. He spent the last five years of his life in jail. I never thought he would be a free man again. I didn’t think he should be. He started four wars. He wrecked Southeastern Europe. Over 300,000 people died, over two and a half million homeless because of Milosevic, and he paid the price, and although he won’t serve out many years in jail, he paid the price by ending his life in jail.

AMY GOODMAN: Richard Holbrooke, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the NATO bombings of Kosovo and Yugoslavia. Chris Hedges, your response.

CHRIS HEDGES: I just want to comment a little bit on what was said before. There certainly was mujahideen in Bosnia. I actually went into one of their camps and interviewed them. But I think they were a pretty minor force. I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that 90-plus percent of the victims of the war, the people who were killed, were Bosnian Muslims. This does not in any way excuse the terrible suffering that many Serbs endured, including in Operation Storm. The most effective ethnic cleansing in the entire Balkan — or the entire wars of former Yugoslavia was, indeed, carried out by Croatia, but the worst suffering was really meted out towards the Muslims.

I think, also, on Kosovo, it’s the Albanian security service that picked Thaci up. I knew him when he was just this sort of local thug in a province called Drenica, driving around in an old Zastava with a trunk load of weapons, oversaw the assassination of most of his rivals and provided him, not only with weapons, but, you know, a small black army of Albanian intelligence officers, not only to protect him, but help him organize and raise this sort of fractious rebellion that we know as the Kosovo Liberation Army. So there were many hands in there.

I think that the United States — it is very true that the United States, especially when there was a rift between Slobodan Milosevic and Radovan Karadzic and the Bosnian Serbs, certainly empowered Milosevic and used him as a way to force the Bosnian Serbs to bend towards U.S. will, especially of course, at Dayton, but at many other times, such as the taking of the hostages of the U.N. peacekeepers, getting them freed and this kind of stuff.

It is a messy, complicated game. And I think it’s — probably when the history of the Clinton administration is written, it’s Bill Clinton’s greatest moral failing, as well as, of course, a failing in terms of foreign policy. Remember that when the Holocaust museum was dedicated shortly before Clinton took office, Elie Wiesel got up and spoke about Bosnia, because, of course, Wiesel understands the lessons of the Holocaust, which is that when you have the capacity to stop a campaign of genocide and you do not, you are culpable in some way for that genocide, and that was something that on an intellectual level Bill Clinton knew and understood, yet for three-and-a-half years, he never had the spine. He would not stand up to the Pentagon, to Colin Powell, and react, and it went on and on and on.

I think the other important point to remember of the wars in the Balkans is that, unfortunately, it gave us this policy, which was embraced by many, you know, sort of liberal interventionists of humanitarian intervention, and this idea was used to justify the war in Iraq. It very much came out of the interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo, although the situations were very different.

Those were active campaigns of genocide; the campaigns of genocide that had taken place in Iraq against the Shiites in the south and the Kurds in the north by Saddam Hussein, were largely over, but I think that that is also another legacy of a war that was manipulated and used to get many people on the left and essentially silence dissidents or people who might have been critics and bring them into the huge shout fest that took place leading up to the invasion of Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask our guest in studio, Andrej Grubacic, about Mladic and Karadzic. Still, they are free.

ANDREJ GRUBACIC: They are still free, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: But I wanted to just get a quick response from Jeremy Scahill to Chris Hedges.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, I think Chris Hedges really hits it on the head when he talks about the Clinton model for military humanism being applied in Iraq . There are many similarities between what Clinton did in Yugoslavia and what Bush has done in Iraq. One of the top among them is the fact that Clinton scoffed at the international community. He refused to get United Nations authorization and instead went with a NATO alliance attack on Yugoslavia.

The other fact that is painful is that the Clinton administration is deeply implicated in the campaign of ethnic violence and killing that happened in Kosovo, because, Amy, when I was on the ground in Kosovo interviewing Albanians, they said that life was horrible under Slobodan Milosevic, and there were all sorts of killings and disappearances and systematic human rights abuses, but that the real slaughter happened once NATO started bombing, once the United States started hitting Kosovo. It gave cover for paramilitary forces to move in and take out whole villages of people. I also interviewed several Serbian special forces guys, as well as regular army guys, who described the same thing, that a week into the bombing, two weeks into the bombing, which began seven years ago this month, that’s when the ethnic targeting really began.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy, we only have 30 seconds. I want to go back to Andrej Grubacic on the issue of Karadzic and Mladic being captured or now free?

ANDREJ GRUBACIC: They are not captured; they are still free, both Mladic and Karadzic. Ratko Mladic is a general — was a general, was a leading commander of Bosnian army. Radovan Karadzic was a political leader of Bosnian Serbs.

AMY GOODMAN: Where are they?

ANDREJ GRUBACIC: They’re hiding. They’re hiding. They are — I don’t have any sympathies for — neither for Mladic nor for Karadzic, but I have even less sympathy for the way that they’re being treated and hunted like animals.

AMY GOODMAN: On that note, we’ll have to leave it there. Jeremy Scahill will be speaking on Tuesday night with Dahr Jamail at the First Methodist Church, Tuesday night in Sacramento, talking about "Iraq, The Story The Corporate Media Won’t Tell You." You can go to WeTheMedia.tv for more information and Andrej Grubacic will be speaking in New York at City Space. Is that — ?

ANDREJ GRUBACIC: New Space.

AMY GOODMAN: New Space, here in New York City, on Thursday night, and we’ll link to both of those events at our web site, DemocracyNow.org. Chris Hedges, journalist and author, author of War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning and Losing Moses on the Freeway.

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