2006-03-12

Questions about Milošević's death

A bit of a controversy is brewing over the causes of the death of Slobodan Milošević. While it is far from rare, given a combination of preexisting conditions, stress, and unhealthy habits, that a person's health should fail, much is being made of the fact that Mr Milošević should have passed just at the time that his trial was (or, possibly, was not) nearing the end of oral presentations of evidence. So his death has given rise to a number of conspiracy theories. None of these are based on anything like reliable evidence, and some of them may be products of how the various conspiracy theorists think the trial was going.

The people who believe that the prosecution was well on the way to a conviction (most prominent among them, the prosecutor) have raised the possibility that the accused may have committed suicide. There are two versions of the story in the rumours: one is that he refused the medication he was given for high blood pressure, as suggested by the Russian physician with whom he consulted, Dr Leo Bokeria. Another is that he may have been (surreptitiously) taking another medication to counteract the effects of the blood pressure medication which was prescribed to him, which is being suggested (we do not know yet on the basis of what source) by the journalist Heikelina Verrijn Stuart. The center of the controversy is around an unconfirmed report from an anonymous source, claiming that an unspecified drug used to treat leprosy had been found in Mr Milošević's blood.

If the report of an unspecified drug is true, Mr Milošević's supporters have their own version of the story of how it got there. His legal counselor Zdenko Tomanović told reporters that Mr Milošević had written to Russian diplomats the day before his death, mentioning a mysterious drug and raising suspicions that his doctors may have been poisoning him. So in this version (promoted by people who believe that the prosecution's case had been going badly), he was killed by poison, presumably either to silence him or to avoid an acquittal.

Conspiracy theories are productive! So choose your version, was he poisoned, and if so by whom? Did he gamble with his health and lose? Did he commit suicide and invent a poisoning cover story? Was somebody else poisoning him? There is enough material for a soap opera to continue into several installments here, and as yet none of the reports of strange drugs having been found are confirmed.

There are clear advantages to the Milošević camp in continuing to level charges against the medical and prison staff engaged by ICTY, and of course it is entirely possible that some charges are valid and some are not. If it is the case that Mr Milošević was refusing medication, the consequences of this are entirely his own doing. If it turns out that somebody not on the medical staff was bringing him drugs, this complicates the story, but still hardly reflects well on the management of the ICTY detention facility.

Then there is the whole appalling symbolic framework: Mr Milošević built his political movement on the ideological trade in dead bodies from the past, now he has become a commodity in that trade. This discussion develops three years to the day after the death of Zoran Đinđić, who was indisputably murdered, we know by whom and for whom.

9 comments:

Guy said...

"but still hardly reflects well on the management of the ICTY detention facility"

And that is an understatement. This was actually my first thought when I heard the news about Milosevic's death.

Eric Gordy said...

The question might get to a very disturbing issue: how many of the problems that could be thought of as having turned out to be fatal (stress, exhaustion, the question of medications) might be effects of efforts to protect the rights of the accused (guaranteeing self-representation in court, weak observation of prisoners)?

talos said...

But what do you think Eric? Was the prosecution on its way to a conviction, or did it fail to produce the required evidence?

Eric Gordy said...

I think it's a bit of a mixed bag. The prosecution charged more than they could prove, but probably they presented enough to convict him on some of the charges -- maybe not enough for the genocide charge, because that requires showing a level of coordination that I am not sure they reached. They were probably helped by the weakness of the defense, since Sloba did not seem to have a very clear idea of what points he needed to respond to, and many of his witnesses did not help him. But in a criminal case, the prosecution has a burden to prove its points beyond a reasonable doubt, so the weakness of the defense is only partly relevant. In the larger context, my guess is that if the trial had been carried through there would have been convictions on enough charges to get a long prison sentence, but the record would not be definitive as history.

I guess that adds up to a little bit yes and a little bit no, which might be unavoidable when there is an effort to translate history and politics into law.

talos said...

You realise though that such a partial verdict (if indeed attained) would be an embarassment for the tribunal. Thus left with competing conspiracy theories (unless the drug allegations are proved false that is), the cui bono? is a very unnerving question.

The problem is that mafia dons and Presidents do not leave paper trails or definitive witnesses to their crimes. They manufacture deniability, unless they are either overconfident or stupid. Mladic and Karadzic will be easy to convict. Milosevic wasn't.

As far as I can tell (though I am ready to stand corrected as I don't claim to be any sort of expert), this is the only direct participation in a murder that Milosevic would have been easily found guilty of - by another sort of court. I haven't seen any testimony that would tie Milosevic, beyond all reasonable doubt, to any of the crimes he is accused of in the Tribunal. Then again, conceivably I missed it since his trial wasn't exactly front page news ever.

Eric Gordy said...

I agree, it looks increasingly like law is not the kind of instrument that is likely to provide satisfaction in these types of cases. There should be a debate on the question of whether the job of history is a good one to leave to lawyers. Of course, one of the reasons that law is brought up in these cases is because it is expected to function as a legitimate nstrument of punishment, probably better than summary justice. I am inclined to think that there is simply a poverty of alternatives.

The point about the Stambolic murder -- I don't get it, are you being disingenuous? Is it a rhetorical way of challenging the doctrine of command responsibility? I'd rather address what the prosecution succeeded in and failed in directly, with the proviso that since no verdict is coming, one good source of answers will always be missing.

Eric Gordy said...
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talos said...

Is it a rhetorical way of challenging the doctrine of command responsibility?
No, but there are many ways to disavow command responsibility (as I said, "manufacturing deniability", note for example the rank of people condemned for the Abu Ghraib atrocities). Were the murders of KLA guerillas and their families a result of a direct order, or a case of loose policemen running wild? I don't think there is an evidentiary trail that can answer this question beyond reasonable doubt for a court regardless of what seems plausible to you or me. On the other hand in the case of the Stambolic murder we do have hard evidence (or am I over-reading the court decision?) that Milosevic was directly involved.

Eric Gordy said...

There is no doubt that SM was directly involved in the plot to murder Stambolic. It is not a war crime or a crime against humanity, though. Mind you, if domestic prosecutors had got around to filing serious charges against him before his extradition, he would probably have been convicted of those, and the mess at the Hague would matter less. In that sense, I do maintain that domestic prosecution would have been better in principle, although it has to be recognized that it would faced serious obstacles in practice. Mr Vukcevic has got off to an impressive start, though -- imagine if he had begun work five years earlier.

The same principle applies to massacres in Kosovo and elsewhere as applies to Abu Ghraib: command responsibility means that commanders are responsible. In the language of the applicable treaties, they are responsible "to prevent and punish" violations. So while there are obvious reasons that commanders would avoid giving direct orders, the legal case against them can still be made by indirect evidence (the systematic nature of the violations, or the existence of a consistent pattern). In the Abu Ghraib case, evidence that high commanders had knowledge on which they failed to act, or established an atmosphere that made violations likely to occur, would also be determinative evidence. A "rogue police unit" defence is possible, but then the defendant has to show that action was taken against the rogues.