Slobodan Milosevic refused on Tuesday to plead to charges of orchestrating genocide by Serb forces in the 1992-95 Bosnian war, deriding the indictment as a "supreme absurdity" from the dock of the U.N. war crimes court.
Presiding judge Richard May entered a "not guilty" plea on behalf of the former Yugoslav leader, who faces 29 counts of genocide, complicity in genocide, crimes against humanity and other war crimes against Bosnian Muslims and Croats.
Milosevic, a dominant political figure in Yugoslavia in the 1990s after communism yielded to nationalism at the end of the Cold War, earlier this year also refused to plead to crimes against humanity in Croatia in 1991-92 and in Kosovo in 1999.
For more than an hour, he sat impassively, often looking around the courtroom, as the indictment was read in his native Serbian language. The former head of state appeared alone on the defendant's side of the courtroom because he refused to appoint defense attorneys to show his contempt for the court.
The indictment charges that Milosevic "exercised effective control or substantial influence" over the political officials and military officers who committed "the widespread killing of thousands of Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats."
Thousands were held in detention "calculated to bring about the partial physical destruction of those groups, namely through starvation, contaminated water, forced labor, inadequate medical care and constant physical and psychological assault," the indictment said.
Serb "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia from the shelling of bread queues in Sarajevo to the Srebrenica massacre horrified the world, sparking U.N. sanctions against Serbia and Western shuttle diplomacy culminating in the 1995 Dayton peace accord.
"I would like to say to you that what we have just heard, this tragic text, is a supreme absurdity. I should be given credit for peace in Bosnia not war," said Milosevic, who signed the accord in the U.S. alongside Croatian and Bosnian leaders.
Milosevic, handed over to the tribunal in June by the Belgrade reformers who defeated him in elections last year, has branded the tribunal illegal.
The Bosnia indictment is the last of three to be completed by prosecutors. Dubbed "The Mother of All Indictments," it covers the longest conflict during Milosevic's 13 years in power. Prosecutors want one trial on all three indictments.
"I'm reasonably confident that the trial will be able to start by the summer as a joint trial," said prosecutor Geoffrey Nice during an application for a single trial. The court's three judges were considering the motion.
If convicted Milosevic could face life behind bars.
In his memoir, U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke recalls Milosevic enjoying midnight shrimp and steak dinners and singing a love song in the officer's mess of the Dayton air force base where the deal was signed after three weeks of intensive talks.
The deal, also signed by Croatia's Franjo Tudjman an Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic, ended 43 months of fighting that claimed 250,000 lives and turned millions of people into homeless refugees.
"The responsibility for the war in Bosnia is with the forces who broke up Yugoslavia and their agents in Yugoslavia not the Serbs or the Serbs in Bosnia," said the 60-year-old Milosevic, dressed in a blue suit and tie.
Milosevic, who glanced at his watch as the indictment was read out, served as president of both Serbia and Yugoslavia before he was ousted by a popular revolt following elections last year.
"Mr. Milosevic, at this time you are simply required to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. You have failed to do so. Accordingly the trial chamber will enter pleas of not guilty to all the counts of this indictment," Judge May said.
Milosevic had remained impassive as the Bosnia indictment, chronicling some of the darkest episodes of ethnic cleansing during the Bosnian war, was read out during his fourth appearance in the court.
The most prominent European to face a war crimes court since the Nuremberg trials of Nazi leaders at the end of World War Two, Milosevic has consulted former U.S. attorney general Ramsey Clark about his case but has declined defense counsel in court.
Prosecutors gained their first genocide conviction in August. In a case that could be a precedent in the Milosevic trial, Bosnian Serb general Radislav Krstic was sentenced to 46 years in prison for deeds committed by his subordinates. Some 15,000 troops under his command killed up to 8,000 men and boys in the summer of 1995.
Though he was not convicted for directly killing anyone, he was found guilty of "command responsibility." In a direct reference to Krstic's superiors, including Milosevic, the tribunal concluded that "someone else probably decided to order the execution."
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