THE HAGUE, Netherlands -- A U.N. prosecutor, opening the landmark trial of Slobodan Milosevic, accused the former Yugoslav leader Tuesday of presiding over "medieval savagery" for his alleged role in three Balkan wars that killed thousands of people and displaced more than a million others.
Milosevic looked calm and glanced around the courtroom as the U.N. tribunal opened the proceedings by reading the case number: IT0254T.
The trial against the former Yugoslav president for alleged atrocities during the breakup of Yugoslavia is Europe's most important war crimes case since the Nuremberg proceedings against Nazi Germany's leaders after World War II.
Milosevic, 60, is the first head of state indicted for war crimes while in office. He could be sentenced to life imprisonment if convicted of any of the 66 specific charges contained in three indictments, one each for the wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. The trial is likely to take two years.
He was expected to give a lengthy opening statement on Wednesday, arguing that the trial is inherently unfair, and that the tribunal is illegal and biased, his legal advisers said.
Chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte said Milosevic was responsible for a campaign that introduced the phrase "ethnic cleansing to common use in our language. Some of the incidents revealed an almost medieval savagery and a calculated cruelty that went far beyond the bounds of legitimate warfare."
His case, she said, would be a powerful demonstration that "no one is above the law or beyond the reach of international justice."
Del Ponte said Milosevic "pursued his ambition at the price of unspeakable suffering imposed on those who opposed him or represented a threat to his personal strategy of power."
All his actions were "in the service of his quest for power," she said, as Milosevic scribbled notes. He occasionally glanced and nodded at supporters among the packed public gallery behind a wall of bulletproof glass.
After years of gathering testimony and months of trial preparation, the Swiss prosecutor said "today, as never before, we see international justice in action," and noted the paramount place the case would have in history.
Milosevic has refused to recognize the legitimacy of the court, berating it as an instrument of his enemies, whom he identified as the NATO alliance.
He claims his actions as Yugoslavia's leader were to defend his country against terrorism and preserve its unity.
Milosevic, who studied law but never practiced, has refused to appoint defense lawyers and will speak for himself.
Legal experts said the case would be complex, with the prosecution obliged to draw a direct link between Milosevic and the crimes committed by Serb forces against other ethnic groups in his disintegrating country.
Starting with Kosovo and continuing with Croatia and Bosnia, deputy prosecutor Geoffrey Nice told the tribunal that Milosevic had command responsibility for the action of Serb troops and must be found guilty if it can be shown that he failed to prevent crimes he knew were happening.
"The evidence will show that the accused had a central role in the joint criminal enterprise" to create a Greater Serbia, Nice said. "He had a fundamental role in planning, organization, financing support and execution of the plan."
The prosecution played a recorded intercept of a conversation between Milosevic and Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic discussing the fight against Bosnian Muslims.
The tape was intended to prove Milosevic's support for the Bosnian Serbs who ostensibly were independent, but it also disclosed the involvement of western intelligence services and their cooperation with the court.
"Did he know what was happening? Of course he did," Nice said, pointing to reports that reached the president's office and the international news coverage of the war.
"Why did he not stop these things that were occurring?" Nice said. "He did not confront his victims. He had these crimes committed for him by others."
The prosecution screened television footage of Milosevic's rise to power, whipping up Serb nationalism and directing Serb anger against other groups.
"Nobody will be allowed to beat you," he told angry Kosovo Serbs in 1987, in a speech that launched him on the national scene.
Vladimir Krsljanin, a member of Milosevic's Socialist Party monitoring the trial, said the prosecution portrayed "an absurd picture of Milosevic's career and placed totally outside the historic context. It's a desperate attempt to prove what is unprovable."
Del Ponte said Milosevic was on trial for his individual actions. "No state or organization is on trial here today," she said, anticipating Milosevic's defense that the trial was directed against the Serb nation.
She said her task was to "allow the voice of the victims to be heard."
"This trial will make history, and we would do well to approach our task in the light of history," Del Ponte said.
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