(The Hague) - New charges against former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, which will be heard in court today, mark an important step toward a full accounting of his role in the violent breakup of Yugoslavia, Human Rights Watch said.
Milosevic was originally charged only for crimes committed in Kosovo. The new indictment covers the 1991-1992 conflict in Croatia, and additional charges covering the Bosnia conflict are expected in the coming weeks.
The indictment charges Milosevic with multiple counts of murder, torture, detention, deportation and other atrocities allegedly committed during the attempted ethnic cleansing of Croatia from 1991 to 1992.
"Finally, Milosevic will be held to account for crimes committed long before the Kosovo war," said Richard Dicker, director of the International Justice Program at Human Rights Watch. "Had it been possible to bring these charges several years ago, perhaps some of the horrors of the Balkan wars could have been averted."
Croatia proclaimed its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. Milosevic, who was President of Serbia at the time, had control over Serb forces that tried to assert control and eliminate non-Serbs from one-third of Croatian territory. In the process, Serb forces murdered or forcibly removed virtually all non-Serbs living there-nearly a quarter of a million people. Human Rights Watch, which first investigated those crimes in 1992, found that civilians accounted for half of those killed.
Included in the new indictment are allegations about the removal of 255 Croat civilians and disabled combatants from Vukovar hospital and their subsequent torture and mass execution. Also included is the 1991 attack on the city of Dubrovnik, a recognized World Cultural Heritage Site.
The indictment accuses Milosevic of participating in a "joint criminal enterprise" whose purpose was the ethnic cleansing of the invaded areas. Fifteen other individuals - none of whom have been arrested - are listed as co-perpetrators.
In addition, the indictment holds Milosevic criminally responsible for the crimes committed by his subordinates on the basis of command responsibility. The prosecutor charges that Serbian and Yugoslav forces fighting in Croatia were subject to Milosevic's control during this period. The prosecution must prove that he knew or should have known of the acts being carried out and took no steps to prevent them.
Charges of sexual violence are included in the thirty-two counts of persecution, torture and inhumane treatment. These acts were allegedly perpetrated by Serb forces against Croat and other non-Serb civilians during their arrest and detention.
"This indictment reaffirms that sexual violence against women during armed conflict can constitute a war crime and a crime against humanity," said Dicker. "And that responsibility for such crimes can rest at the highest levels." Human Rights Watch has pressed The Hague Tribunal to continue investigating and prosecuting crimes of sexual violence committed in the Balkan conflicts.
Milosevic is already in detention awaiting trial before the tribunal for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo in 1999. A new Human Rights Watch report was released on October 26 in Pristina. "Under Orders" fully documents the systematic crimes committed by Serb forces during the Kosovo conflict, as well as abuses committed by the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army.
Today the court is also scheduled to hear a motion arguing for Mr. Milosevic's release. The motion was prepared by three lawyers appointed to assist the court in ensuring a fair trial after Milosevic insisted on representing himself. The motion challenges the manner of his arrest and the Tribunal's legitimacy.
The Tribunal was created in 1993 by U.N. Security Council Resolution 827, under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, which authorizes the Security Council to determine when a threat to international peace exists and to respond accordingly.
"The legality and legitimacy of this court are simply indisputable," said Dicker. "The court has an international mandate, and its rulings are based on sound precedents in international law."