By MARLISE SIMONS
THE HAGUE - Four years behind bars have inevitably changed Slobodan Milosevic. His white hair has receded, his stomach is bulkier, his English has improved. Since he arrived, handcuffed, at the United Nations jail in The Hague on June 28, 2001, he has also become less blustery, perhaps the result of blood-pressure medication or the sheer drudgery of his long trial on an array of war crimes charges.
Once given to bursting into tirades and dismissing his indictment as a fake and his trial as a farce, Mr. Milosevic, the former Serbian president, has now become steeped in the case's 200,000 pages. These days, he sits in the dock flanked by carts full of binders, which he frequently consults. He addresses his three judges sitting high on the dais, rather than turning to the public gallery, which has been mostly empty.
But Mr. Milosevic's old mind-set remains intact.
Day after day, he has tenaciously stuck to his own version of what happened during his 13 years in power, which led to three wars and killed more than 250,000. Serbs were not responsible for the wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo, he contends, but were forced to defend themselves from aggression.
Contrary to charges in his indictment, Mr. Milosevic says there was no plan to create a larger country for all Serbs and no atrocities were committed. Yes, people died, but they were fighting, or were bombed by NATO. This view of history has been much on display in the months since Mr. Milosevic began calling his own witnesses to defend not just himself, but also the Serbian national cause. The prosecution rested its case last year after bringing 114 witnesses to the court and presenting written testimony from 240 additional witnesses to buttress its lengthy charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
The trial, which began in February 2002, has already set a record for longevity in international law and the end is not in sight.
So far, Mr. Milosevic, who acts as his own lawyer, has presented close to 30 witnesses, among them former aides, old Communist Party friends, historians and a forensic specialist, as well as outsiders including a French Army colonel and several senior Russian politicians. He has used almost 40 percent of the 150 days allotted to him, but his lawyers say he plans to call dozens more witnesses. "You can expect I will be asking for a prolongation," Mr. Milosevic told the judges at a recent hearing. "My aim is to present the truth, and that takes time."
The judges apparently believe he is stalling. They often instruct Mr. Milosevic to stop asking leading questions, and not to waste time with repetitive and irrelevant evidence. "I'm disgusted with your performance," Patrick Robinson, the presiding judge, said at one point, abruptly cutting off the microphone.
Fearing that it will take months before Mr. Milosevic addresses the war in Bosnia, a crucial part of the case, judges have also suggested sitting for longer hours or four times a week, rather than the current three. But that drew quick objections from Mr. Milosevic, who argued that his chronic heart disease would not allow it. If his condition improved, he said, "then this place should be advertised as a kind of spa for treating health problems."
The trial's current focus is the 1999 war in the Serbian province Kosovo. Mr. Milosevic has devoted much time and effort to that conflict because, as president of Serbia at the time, he can be held directly accountable for any proven atrocities by its security forces.
"We want to show that yes, there were crimes, but it was not our policy and the authorities reacted and punished them," said Branko Rakic, a legal adviser to Mr. Milosevic.
Gen. Obrad Stevanovic, the deputy interior minister in charge of the police and the highest ranking Serb official to appear, has testified for the past month without shedding much light except on his loyalty to his former boss. He gave lengthy accounts of police rules, weaponry and ammunition, and said repeatedly that the police could not have committed any crimes because their role was to uphold the law.
His constant denials that the police killed civilians in Kosovo infuriated the lead prosecutor, Geoffrey Nice. Explain to this court, Mr. Nice said, how bodies of Kosovar families came to be buried in a police compound and were then moved to another police compound. The general said he had no knowledge of that.
Mr. Nice quoted from a letter from a Serbian Army general, Nebojsa Pavkovic, complaining that the Serbian police were committing "murder, rape, plunder, robbery," while attributing the crimes to the army. General Stevanovic: "These are serious allegations by the army against the police which I was not aware of."
The routine of examination and cross-examination was suddenly upset on June 1 after General Stevanovic acknowledged that the Serbian police had been on duty in Bosnia and Croatia, but performed only common tasks, such as "traffic control and crime prevention." Mr. Nice then showed a videotape depicting the execution of six Muslim men by a Serbian paramilitary police unit as part of the Srebrenica massacre of 1995. He asked General Stevanovic if he recognized anyone in the unit, known as the Scorpions. No, the general said, they were not part of the regular Serbian police force. Prosecutors say that in 1995, the Scorpions were part of the secret police.
Since the videotape was shown, the Serbian authorities say, six men appearing in it have been arrested.
Many commentators have called the videotaped executions "the smoking gun," but any link to Mr. Milosevic, as head of the police forces, has yet to be established. Prosecutors obtained the videotape only recently and they cannot enter it into evidence until they reopen their case and show the provenance and authenticity of the images. Mr. Milosevic said the film had been tampered with.
The day the film of the executions was shown in court, Mr. Milosevic returned to the jail looking dejected. Rather than socializing with fellow inmates, as he usually did, he withdrew into his cell and did not reappear that night, lawyers visiting the jail said.
Asked why Mr. Milosevic was disturbed, Mr. Rakic, his lawyer, offered this explanation: "This is clearly part of a media campaign. We think this film was designed to shock the public, not to prove something."