by Vesna Peric Zimonjic
(IPS) BELGRADE --
indictment of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic has sparked a heated debate among Serbian politicians and legal experts over the manner in which it was handled, both before and after his arrest on April 1.
"There were mistakes surrounding the arrest itself," President Vojislav Kostunica admitted. "There were also mistakes in assembling the criminal charges that led to putting the former president behind bars."
President Kostunica shares the views of those who criticise the manner of Milosevic's arrest, in which charges were hastily put together to meet Washington's Mar. 31 deadline.
The arrest was a precondition for the release of some $100 million in aid, which was approved by the U.S. Congress just a day after Milosevic was put behind bars.
Although Western countries welcomed Milosevic's arrest, many Serbians, including President Kostunica, remain ambiguous over it.
Milosevic lost last year's presidential elections to Kostunica, but refused to concede defeat. The former president, who ruled Yugoslavia for ten years, finally stepped down on Oct. 5xz following a popular uprising.
The only point that government officials, led by Interior Minister Dusan Mihajlovic, have unanimously agreed on is that Milosevic's arrest was "in accordance with the law."
Investigative judge Goran Cavlina has ordered Milosevic to be held for 30 days. Criminal charges against him involve corruption and abuse of state funds worth some $390 million.
"The article 26 named in criminal charges against Milosevic is the so-called India-rubber paragraph," says Ljubisa Lazarevic, a professor of criminal law at Belgrade University. "It's one of the most vague paragraphs, which can be widened or contracted for immediate use...when there is no concrete act one can be charged with."
Milosevic's supporters and his Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) argue that their leader is "a victim of a political witch-hunt."
"Everything was done to please Western countries," Branislav Ivkovic, a top SPS official, told IPS recently. "A political war is being waged against the true patriot, Mr. Milosevic."
SPS, the former Communist Party that ruled Yugoslavia since WWII, organized protests against Milosevic's arrest, including a rally of 3,000 supporters in downtown Belgrade last weekend.
embattled former president surprised the country when just days after his arrest, his lawyer Toma Fila decided to go public with his client's appeal.
In the appeal, printed in all Serbian newspapers, Milosevic made a startling claim that the money he has been accused of stealing was not used for private gain, but to finance Serb nationalist armies in Croatia and Bosnia.
Milosevic said he financed the purchase "of weapons, ammunition and other needs" for the Bosnian Serb and Croatian Serb armies. "These expenses could not, as a state secret, be accounted for in the state budget," he said.
It was the first time that Milosevic broke his silence on the collapse of the former Yugoslav federation in the 1990s. More than 200,000 people were killed and three million driven from their homes in those wars.
While the fighting raged, Milosevic and his government stood by the theory that large Serb populations in Croatia and Bosnia were acting in self-defense.
The wars in Croatia and Bosnia resulted in economic sanctions by the international community that ruined Serbia's economy.
There had never been a single admission by Milosevic that Belgrade was involved in the wars in Croatia and Bosnia until he published his appeal in the newspapers recently. Milosevic is said to given only verbal orders, and to have used intermediates from his inner circle of aides.
"Since it was established in 1993, The Hague war tribunal spent millions of dollars to prove that Milosevic took part in the wars," said a veteran Belgrade lawyer, who asked for anonymity.
"Now he has admitted it," the lawyer added. "It's very dangerous for him, and for the rest of us. We might end up paying war damages to Croatia and Bosnia, which are estimated at more than $50 billion."
"The appeal (in the newspapers) is one of the hardest legacies of Milosevic's rule," Justice Minister Vladan Batic told journalists. "It directly links our country with an aggressive war, meaning we'll have to pay war damages in the future."
The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia at The Hague has indicted Milosevic for atrocities against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo in 1999. The tribunal is demanding that Milosevic be extradited to the Netherlands -- a move that the Yugoslav government is currently trying to block.
The tribunal's prosecutors said last week they were preparing additional indictments against Milosevic for atrocities in Bosnia and Croatia, including genocide charges.
Legal and political experts in Belgrade say that the appeal could be a carefully calculated ploy to woo support from the 600,000 Serb refugees from Croatia and Bosnia currently living in Yugoslavia.
"The claim that he (Milosevic) stole money not for personal profit but to help Serbs fighting in the newly independent republics could appeal to the nationalist sentiment of former loyalists who have drifted away from him amid constant accusations of corruption," says political analyst Bratislav Grubacic.
"That can cause trouble for the new administration, if ordinary people start asking why the man who helped our brethren is being accused of (providing) that (assistance)."
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