Milosevic dies in jail

Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic has died, the UN tribunal said on Saturday, just months before his trial for genocide and war crimes in the Balkans wars in the 1990s was expected to conclude.

“Milosevic was found lifeless on his bed in his cell at the United Nations detention unit,” the tribunal said in a statement.

“The guard immediately alerted the detention unit officer in command and the medical officer. The latter confirmed that Slobodan Milosevic was dead.”

The UN court said the Dutch police and a Dutch coroner were called in and started an inquiry. A full autopsy and toxicological examination have been ordered. Milosevic’s family has been informed, it added.

A tribunal spokeswoman said she could not comment on the cause of death until the autopsy was completed, but added: “We have no indication that it was suicide.”

French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy told reporters in Salzburg that Milosevic had died of natural causes. (But how does he know when an autopsy has not even been carried out nor any police investigation concluded? And doubts about the cause of Milosevic’s death are already being voiced by his lawyer and other observers. Ed.)

“I would like to spare a thought for all those who suffered so much from ethnic cleansing, tens of thousands of men, women and children, which Milosevic conceived and planned,” he said.

Milosevic, 64, suffered a heart condition and high blood pressure which had repeatedly interrupted his trial in The Hague on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes during the bloody disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

As news of the death swept through the Balkans, an official of Milosevic’s Socialist Party, Zoran Andjelkovic, said: “We expect the tribunal to explain how was it possible, and why they did not let him have treatment in Russia”.

Another Socialist party official, reached on his car phone, said simply: “They killed him, the bastards.”

Illness

Cardiologists treating Milosevic in The Hague had warned he was at risk of a potentially life threatening condition known as a hypertensive emergency, when surges in blood pressure can damage the heart, kidneys and central nervous system.

Last month, the tribunal rejected a request by Milosevic to travel to Russia for specialist medical treatment, noting that his trial — that has already lasted four years — was in the final stages and he might not return to complete it.

Milosevic, who was overthrown in 2000 and sent to The Hague in June 2001, said last month his health was worsening and he was hearing noises in his head. A lawyer by training, Milosevic was defending himself.

Steven Kay, a lawyer appointed by the tribunal to help Milosevic prepare his case, said the former Serb strongman had told him a few weeks ago he had no intention of taking his own life after working so hard to defend himself.

“He knew the risk that he was taking,” Kay told BBC television, adding the pressure of defending himself raised his blood pressure but the case was expected to wrap up soon.

“There was an end in sight.”

Milosevic’s brother lives in Russia and prosecutors suspect his wife and son do too. The prosecution had opposed his release despite a promise by Russia to return him, fearing he could say his health stopped him from travelling back to The Hague.

Milosevic had used up more than four-fifths of the 150 days allotted for his defence, suggesting the case could have been wrapped up in the next few months barring any new delays. Judges would then need several months to deliberate before a verdict.

Milosevic was charged with 66 counts of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in complex indictments covering conflicts in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo in the 1990s. He had declined to enter a plea.

Last week, former rebel Croatian Serb leader Milan Babic committed suicide at the tribunal’s detention centre. Babic had testified against Milosevic and was in The Hague to appear in the trial of another top Croatian Serb.

(Additional reporting by Douglas Hamilton in Belgrade)