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Milosevic fit for trial, judges rule

Netherlands: Milosevic
Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic appears to defend his case at the war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, on Monday.Michel Porro / Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

The U.N. tribunal ruled Tuesday that former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is fit to stand trial, but he may not be healthy enough to continue defending himself against charges of war crimes and genocide.

The judges ordered Milosevic, 62, to undergo a new medical examination by an independent cardiologist and postponed hearings in his case until July 14. One week later, the trial will be adjourned until the end of August, allowing Milosevic further time to prepare his case.

The judges also instructed the tribunal’s registrar to identify a lawyer who could be assigned to Milosevic’s defense if necessary.

The ruling came one day after the three-judge panel released details of the former Yugoslav leader’s heart condition and said they planned a “radical review” of the trial’s procedure.

Milosevic has refused to accept a courtroom representative, preferring to conduct his own defense against 66 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed during the Balkan wars of 1990s.

His trial, which began in February 2002, has been repeatedly delayed due to Milosevic’s illnesses. He was due to begin presenting his formal defense this week, but his court-appointed doctor said his blood pressure was dangerously high and he needed more rest.

'Standby counsel' in works
At a hearing Monday, presiding Judge Patrick Robinson read from a medical report that said Milosevic had suffered damage to the heart and could be at risk of a heart attack or stroke.

In Tuesday’s ruling, the court said: “There is no evidence that the accused is not fit to stand trial at all, but there is evidence that the health of the accused is such that he may not be fit to continue to represent himself.”

The judges said they were preparing to appoint a “standby counsel” to either assist Milosevic in preparing and presenting his defense or to take over the case entirely if his health continues to decline.

Summing up its challenge, the ruling said the court must “identify measures for the continuation of the trial which are efficient, sensitive to the health of the accused, and conducive to the fair and proper presentation of his defense.” In the first two years, 66 trial days were lost when Milosevic complained of flu, fatigue or other ailments.

His health continued to deteriorate during the last few months after the prosecution ended its case, said Steven Kay, an independent lawyer assigned to ensure that Milosevic receives a fair trial.

Four-hour opening statement planned
Kay urged the court Monday to consider whether the trial should be called off. If that were to happen, Milosevic likely would be set free.

If convicted on any of the charges, however, Milosevic could face life imprisonment. The tribunal has no death penalty.

Milosevic has a team of lawyers in Belgrade who have helped him research witnesses and prepare cross-examinations. But he appears alone on the defense bench in court, facing a battery of prosecutors.

On Monday, Milosevic had been scheduled to give a four-hour opening statement and then begin calling witnesses. He has submitted a list of 1,400 names of potential witnesses, including former U.S. President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. But he will only have 150 days to present his case — the same number of days as the prosecution.