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The former Yugoslav president, Slobodan Milosevic, has died before a verdict could be rendered on his alleged crimes, but overall his trial at the war crimes court in The Hague represents an advance in the cause of international justice, Human Rights Watch said today.

“Milosevic may have escaped judgment, but he did not escape the process of justice,” said Richard Dicker, director of the International Justice program at Human Rights Watch. “The victims of the Balkan wars deserved the satisfaction of hearing a verdict read against him in court, and they will never get that. But Milosevic died under indictment, stripped of his powers, with a long and official enumeration of his crimes on record for posterity.”

Milosevic’s four-year trial before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia had amassed enormous evidence of his role in genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity committed during the ethnic cleansing that he set in motion between 1992 and 1999 in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo. His death denies the tribunal the opportunity to render a verdict, but it does not undo more than 10 years of the tribunal’s work to bring him and other high-level officials to justice.

“Milosevic’s death sets back efforts to show that ethnic cleansing was the product not of an ethnic group but of the designs of individual leaders,” said Dicker. “His trial laid bare the massive evidence of his crimes, but his victims will now be denied a formal judgment on his guilt.”

The lengthy trial was plagued by delays caused by both the size of the prosecution’s case and by Milosevic’s seemingly intentional delaying tactics. The court also ordered repeated adjournments in order to respond to Milosevic’s health problems.

Milosevic insisted on representing himself, and his cross-examination of prosecution witnesses, as well as his extensive defense case, seemed designed to score political points in his native Serbia. Yet as public attention to the trial waned and the cumulative weight of the evidence grew, Milosevic’s objectives were clear.

“Milosevic was not trying to rebut the charges against him but to conduct a political offensive,” said Dicker. “His main defense strategy was to draw out the proceedings in the hope of securing his place in the hearts and minds of Serbs.”

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