updated 8/17/2004 10:08:53 PM ET 2004-08-18T02:08:53

Ninety legal experts from 17 countries urged the United Nations on Tuesday to allow former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to continue defending himself against war crimes charges, arguing that imposing a defense lawyer against his wishes would violate international law.

The jurists, law professors and international criminal lawyers said in a petition to U.N. officials that even if Milosevic has heart trouble he still has the right to defend himself.

“Illness does not destroy his right to defend himself in person,” former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark told a news conference at the U.N. Correspondents Association.

The petition calls for Milosevic’s provisional release so he can receive adequate medical treatment and warns that having an outside lawyer take over his defense “will only increase his hypertension and place his life at risk.”

Milosevic’s trial at the U.N. tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, on 66 counts of war crimes, including genocide, began in February 2002 and has stalled at the halfway point because of his heart problems.

When the trial resumes on Aug. 31, the judges are expected to rule on two ways to speed up proceedings — forcing Milosevic to accept a defense lawyer and splitting the trial to separately cover conflicts in Croatia, Bosnia and the Serbian province of Kosovo during the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Milosevic and U.N. prosecutors rejected the idea of breaking up the trial, according to court documents filed late last month. But prosecutors have long advocated the idea of imposing a defense lawyer — a move Milosevic bitterly opposes.

In their four-page petition, the legal experts accused the U.N. tribunal of compounding Milosevic’s medical problems by refusing his right to provisional release, by providing short preparation periods for his defense, and by introducing “an inordinate quantity of prosecution evidence.”

These three factors increased Milosevic’s stress level, “the principal trigger of his illness,” the petition said.

Imposing a defense lawyer would violate Milosevic’s rights under the statute of the Yugoslav tribunal and also under the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights, they said.

“The man is innocent,” Clark said. “He should be able to prove his innocence.”

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