The biggest war crimes trial since the Nuremburg proceedings against Nazi leaders began today, with the lead prosecutor accusing the defendant of "medieval savagery" that affected over a million people, and left thousands dead.
Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic appeared calm as he was called in front of the U.N. War Crimes Tribunal at the Hague today.
The 60-year-old former Balkan strongman is charged with crimes against humanity arising from the wars in Kosovo in 1999 and Croatia in 1991. He is also accused of genocide from the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina from 1992-95.
The prosecution said more than a million people were imprisoned or forced from their homes and tens of thousands were killed or maimed during the conflicts. The landscape was left devastated, and the population ruined.
"The events themselves were notorious and a new term, 'ethnic cleansing,' came into common use in our language," said U.N. prosecutor Carla Del Ponte.
"Some of the incidents revealed an almost medieval savagery and a calculated cruelty that went far beyond the bounds of legitimate warfare."
She said the one of the causes of the wars was Milosevic's desire to create a "Greater Serbia" from Yugoslavia as it crumbled away from communism.
But she said as Milosevic appealed to Serb nationalism, he also had a cynical goal of amassing power for himself.
"Beyond the nationalist pretext and the horror of ethnic cleansing, behind the grandiloquent rhetoric and the hackneyed phrases, the search for power is what motivated Slobodan Milosevic," Del Ponte said.
Milosevic is the first head of state indicted for war crimes while in office. He could be sentenced to life imprisonment if convicted of any of the 66 specific charges contained in three indictments, one each for the wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo.
As part of its opening statement, the prosecution screened archive footage of Milosevic's impassioned speeches designed to stir up Serb nationalism and direct its anger against other groups.
"Nobody will be allowed to beat you," he told angry Kosovo Serbs in 1987, in a speech that helped bring him to power.
Dressed in a crisp dark suit, blue shirt and striped tie, Milosevic watched the films quietly, and smiled faintly and raised his eyebrows in what appeared to be ironic amusement.
"Not an idealist, someone concerned more, if not exclusively, with the maintenance of personal power," said prosecutor Geoffrey Nice in describing Milosevic.
"From the first to the last, he wanted as much as he could get away with and as much as he could keep, provided the price was not too high in territory or power."
In an apparent effort to address concerns that it would be difficult to link Milosevic directly with the atrocities that took place during the three wars, Nice pointed to international news coverage of the war.
"Did he know what was happening? Of course he did," Nice said. "Why did he not stop these things that were occurring? He did not confront his victims. He had these crimes committed for him by others."
The prosecution said it would call witnesses including Kosovo Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova and the former U.S. head of a Kosovo peacekeeping mission, William Walker. Many others will appear as protected witnesses whose identities will not be disclosed in public or in the courtroom.
Anticipating Milosevic's defense that the trial was directed against the Serb nation, Del Ponte told the court, "No state or organization is on trial here today."
She said her task was to "allow the voice of the victims to be heard. Many of the victims cannot come to you because they did not survive." She also accused Milosevic of trying to "undermine the solemnity of these proceedings" by mocking the court.
Prosecutors' opening statements continue on Wednesday. When they are finished, Milosevic will speak for himself.
He has refused to appoint defense lawyers to challenge the legitimacy of the court, calling it a a blatantly illegal body, manipulated by his Western foes, and set up to condemn him, Yugoslavia and Serbs.
Milosevic reportedly plans to demand that several former and present world leaders — including former U.S. President Bill Clinton, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, former NATO head Javier Solana, and U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke — appear before the court to testify to their change in attitude toward him.
Jacques Verger, a 76-year-old Frenchman who once helped defend such unpopular figures as Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie and terrorist Carlos the Jackal, has called the trial a "legal comedy" staged to justify NATO's military action in Serbia. He is an adviser to Milosevic.
He said NATO's bombing of Serbia during the Kosovo conflict was the alliance's first offensive action against a sovereign nation in its history. "NATO hasn't intervened over the Northern Ireland conflict, or the Basque conflict with Spain," he told Reuters.
Milosevic's legal advisers said they are also preparing a lawsuit at the European Court of Human Rights contesting the legality of the U.N. tribunal.
They say the tribunal had violated Milosevic's human rights by transferring him from Belgrade to The Hague, and by refusing to grant him private meetings with lawyers.