John Catalinotto Interviews Sara Flounders
(Swans - March 27, 2006) John Catalinotto: Sara, you have been active as a writer and political organizer since the breakup of Yugoslavia was first threatened in the early 1990s. What was your reaction when you heard that former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic had died in Scheveningen Prison in The Hague and that the media was claiming he might have committed suicide or purposely taken medications that compromised his health?
Sara Flounders: My first reaction was distress that he had died while in the hands of the same US and NATO forces that had destroyed his country, Yugoslavia, and which had refused to allow him the medical care he and his defenders sought, sorrow for his family who had been prevented from visiting him on a regular basis, and anger that the same demonization of him that had gone on for the past 16 years spewed out after his death. As an approved defense witness, I had interviewed with Milosevic on June 28, 2004. I knew on the one hand how the latest accusations were as contrived and filled with contradictions as the whole case against him was, and on the other hand how people unfamiliar with the facts might be deceived by all the lies.
No one who has met with President Milosevic since he was kidnapped from Belgrade to The Hague in June of 2001 or who watched him cross-examine government witnesses during sessions of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) could believe he would kill himself or even risk killing himself rather than finish his defense. By choosing to defend himself during what was already a four-year-long hearing he could use the ICTY as a platform to make his political case against NATO, and he did this well.
Anyone wanting to learn the recent history of the Balkans could benefit from reading Milosevic's opening defense speech, given on August 31-September 1, 2004. With it, he has left a ringing indictment of US and European big-power intervention in the Balkans in a historic document that follows a J'Accuse format. His speech, which contains extensive documentation and factual detail, has been published in Serbian, Greek, French, Russian, and English. This response, which the International Action Center published just a few months ago in English under the title, The Defense Speaks for History and the Future, will stand long after the tawdry war propaganda has collapsed.
And no one who visited Scheveningen in The Hague would believe the outlandish claims that somehow Milosevic was able to smuggle in unprescribed medications on a regular basis. Even after my name was accepted as a defense witness, it was a complicated and lengthy procedure to get through to Milosevic. Before I could get in, I had to pass four totally separate checkpoints and was unable to take in anything but papers. Each level of security was more rigid than the one before. Though all was approved on the day of the visit, it still took four hours to get through the checkpoints into the special unit inside the prison where ICTY defendants were kept -- totally segregated from the general population and closely monitored.
JC: How did you come to visit Milosevic in Scheveningen and what were your impressions of him?
SF: My role as witness was based both on my political knowledge -- I had co-edited two books on its recent history -- and on my trip to Yugoslavia in the spring of 1999 during the bombing. I went then with a delegation from the International Action Center that accompanied former Attorney General Ramsey Clark. In the middle of the 78-day US/NATO bombing campaign -- it was in mid-May, I visited bombed schools, hospitals, heating plants, and market places, recording the destruction done to civilians, what NATO press spokesperson Jamie Shea in 1999 used to call "collateral damage," although some of those giving orders later admitted that the civilian infrastructure and the morale of the Yugoslavs were the main targets of the bombing campaign.
After the cease-fire in June 1999, NATO discovered it had destroyed only 13 tanks in Kosovo and killed maybe a hundred Yugoslav soldiers, but had killed hundreds if not thousands of civilians in Serbia, including hundreds of children, rocket-bombed the television broadcasting center and the Chinese Embassy, and had polluted the entire region by bombing the chemical plants at Pancevo near Belgrade.
The day I met Milosevic I had flown over from the U.S., suffered from lack of sleep and jet lag, and had just gone through four hours of unpleasant security checks. Milosevic had high blood pressure, but he was energetic and positive throughout the entire interview, which lasted more than three hours. He had a clear grasp of what he wanted from my testimony. He was also in complete command of the history of the region. Whatever my own desire to rest might have been, his enthusiasm kept me focused on the work. One got the impression that his best moments were planning and then carrying out his case.
In the hours we met he expressed no complaints about the physical conditions under which he was held. He didn't complain about the food, painfully strict security conditions, lack of being allowed to visit with any of his family, or any of the other things that the ICTY was using in an attempt to break his morale. His only complaint was that the ICTY was able to deny him any access to any preparation material or files during days and days of imposed rest, anytime his blood pressure was high or he was sick. These delays further increased the pressure on him, because each court-imposed "rest" further limited his preparation time. None of the material was allowed into his cell, so the hours that he could work were very strictly limited. All of this was part of the pressure to get him to give up on presenting his own defense.
He spoke English fluently so we needed no interpreter. Before the ICTY officials, he spoke only Serbian -- not only was that his right, but he was aiming his statements at the people back home, who were the only ones, after the first week, who were able to follow the trial daily in detail. The reason his trial rebuttals and presentations were such popular viewing in Serbia every evening after Milosevic had cross-examined prosecution witnesses or later on the court days when he presented his witnesses, was that these were familiar figures and events to people in Serbia. The population constantly saw him as battling Western propaganda and demonization, not battling for his personal reputation but always putting the events in the larger political context, yet taking up the minutest details.
Milosevic had hundreds of files, lists and lists of potential defense witnesses. Every potential witness had to be approved by the ICTY. He read an enormous amount and knew at the tip of his tongue each person's particular view, specific contribution, and general political orientation. He also had a very detailed and fully developed defense strategy. There were stacks of books in his office cell and stacks of files of transcripts with stickers marking specific points to raise or rebut.
During our interview, Milosevic referred often to his copy of Hidden Agenda: the U.S.-NATO Takeover of Yugoslavia, in which he had written many comments in the margins of the text. The book, which the International Action Center published in 2002, was organized so as to present a case of war crimes against the NATO leaders and generals. It followed the outline of a people's tribunal we organized in June 2000 charging [President Bill] Clinton and the other NATO presidents, prime ministers, chancellors, and generals with war crimes regarding the aggression against Yugoslavia. Ramsey Clark had prepared our indictment, and it was all laid out in the form of violations of international laws.
Most important for Milosevic's work, the book included people's efforts from around the world to gather the evidence of U.S./NATO's crimes against Yugoslavia during the bombing and it framed the political role of these bombings in the breakup of Yugoslavia in the light of international law and war crimes. These were the exact points Milosevic wanted to develop in his defense. It was obvious our book was a useful tool for his own preparation, even if he brought up additional topics or gave a different emphasis.
JC: You say Milosevic had a different emphasis. What do you mean?
SF: In our people's tribunal, although we presented a case against the leaders of other NATO countries, the main part of our argument exposed the role of the United States. Also, we were concentrating mainly on what is called the Kosovo war, that is, the 1999 military assault on Yugoslavia with the excuse of defending "human rights" of the ethnic Albanian people who were a majority of the population in the Kosovo province of Serbia. Milosevic had to defend his role during the conflicts involving Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina also, and he paid close attention to the role of the German government -- which was significant in subverting Yugoslavia in the early 1990s -- and to the role played by agents of the Vatican. He also developed the historical role of both Germany and the Catholic Church hierarchy in the Balkans. Regarding the US role, he used many of the same points we did, but he also knew -- from the inside -- of the duplicity of US diplomacy.
JC: If the war in Kosovo wasn't fought over human rights, what was behind this war?
SF: Yugoslavia was the last standing pro-socialist country in Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was also the last remaining country whose government had not capitulated to the Western European powers and the United States and given them free entry to the economy. For that reason alone these powers aimed at what would today be called "regime change" first in Yugoslavia and then, after they succeeded in dividing the Yugoslav Federation into weak countries they could easily rule, in the remaining independent regime in Serbia and Montenegro headed by the Socialist Party of Serbia, Milosevic's party.
In addition, these big powers, especially the U.S. and Germany, had their own rivalries and their own interests at stake in the Balkans. Yugoslavia has strategic importance. It lies on the oil pipeline route from the Caspian Sea region to Western Europe. It has a skilled, educated workforce. It is in what the rulers in Berlin consider their "back yard," just as Washington looks at Latin America. German diplomacy and subversion had made key inroads in the early 1990s by backing the secessionist regimes in Croatia and Slovenia. Washington had as its trump card its military might, and the 1999 war put the U.S. back in the leading role in the region.
It is instructive that at the end of the 1999 war the big powers held a conference in Bosnia to carve up Kosovo just as they had met in 1878 in Berlin to carve up the Balkans or in 1885 in Berlin again to carve up Africa. Without the Soviet Union as a counterweight, these powers more openly exposed their role as colonial rulers. The United States set up the large permanent military base, Camp Bondsteel, in Kosovo, its largest foreign military base since the Vietnam War, poised to threaten all of the Balkans and Eastern Europe. Germany, France, Britain, and Italy each took control of pieces of Kosovo, which includes the valuable mines and refineries in Trepca, their worth valued at $5 billion. Italy, as the least powerful of these colonial powers, got control of the part of Kosovo that had the most Depleted Uranium weapons fired and left as a dangerous waste product of the war.
By 2003, with a client regime in power in Serbia, USX, formerly known as the U.S. Steel Corporation, had bought the technologically advanced Sartid steel plant for a mere $23 million, although the Yugoslav government had invested $1 billion into it from 1990 to 2000. This plant manufactures specialized steel with buyers on the world market. And it has workers with more than 30 years experience who are paid only $159 per month. Sartid was only one of 882 major purchases at low prices of Yugoslav industries bought up by US and West European capital. They paid $1.4 billion in total to the Serbian government, about half of it from US capital.
Like the other wars of the 20th century, the war against Yugoslavia was fought over conquest of raw materials, markets, and areas to invest capital.
JC: What was Milosevic's attitude toward the ICTY?
SF: The president constantly raised the illegitimacy of the ICTY, who set up the tribunal and whose interests it served. He refused to show respect for the ICTY, and never addressed the ICTY judges by their titles. He would only say Mr. Robinson, Mr. May. He insisted on representing himself in the proceedings so as not to be at the mercy of anyone who may have a separate agenda, and especially to anyone beholden to the ICTY.
Milosevic did not plead with his own innocence. He didn't push the responsibility for decisions onto others, as so many US politicians do when they say that they were not informed about a situation, had bad advice, were kept in the dark, etc. He focused his strategy entirely on proving the role and the guilt of the United States, Germany, and NATO in the dismemberment of the Yugoslav Federation.
During the ICTY proceedings, Milosevic constantly cut through layers of phony legalisms and procedural motions and put the issue, the fact or the witness in clear terms. To him, the terms were who had resisted US/NATO aggression and who had worked for and served US/NATO aggression. I saw a Dutch television film about the Milosevic case with some coverage of highlights of testimony. Milosevic showed in his detailed cross-examination of prosecution witnesses that he often knew more about the witnesses and their history in Yugoslavia than the prosecutor who had brought them to The Hague. He often had information that would discredit their testimony.
When we met he discussed how determined he was to subpoena as witnesses both Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. He reasoned that if these leaders of NATO countries refused to testify as hostile witnesses, it would only further expose just how rigged the entire trial was. Last month Milosevic asked to have both Clinton and Blair as witnesses and both refused.
JC: Could you explain what the origins of the ICTY were?
SF: The ICTY is not a real international court, in the sense that the International Criminal Court (ICC) is. The United States government refuses to recognize the authority of the ICC since this court has the ability to try anyone in any country signed up to it for war crimes. But the ICTY, the one that tried Milosevic, is a political court set up by the UN Security Council at the insistence of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in 1993. As Ramsey Clark has made clear in his writing many times, there is nothing in the UN Charter that allows the United Nations Security Council to set up such a court. The ICTY's scope is limited to trying the peoples of the former Yugoslavia. The vast majority of the prisoners are Serbs. It is a propaganda apparatus and internment camp for political prisoners, disguised as an unbiased court.
The ICTY's goal is to punish the victims for the crimes committed against them and to absolve the big powers -- who were all the former colonialist rulers of the world, including the Balkans -- who invaded, bombed, dismembered, and forced the privatization of the Socialist Federation of Yugoslavia. When attorneys from Canada and Britain tried to bring charges against US and NATO figures for war crimes, such as the bombing of civilian targets, the ICTY decided that it could not hear these charges.
For six years after the ICTY was established it brought no charges against Milosevic for anything having to do with the battles in Croatia or the civil war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. It was only during the heat of the bombing attack on Yugoslavia, when NATO was desperately trying to get the Yugoslavs to stop resisting this bombing, that is, toward the end of May 1999, that the ICTY charged Milosevic with war crimes regarding Kosovo. German and US politicians had claimed there were massacres of as many as 100,000 people in Kosovo. This was given as the reason for intervening. On November 10, 1999, Carla Del Ponte, chief prosecutor for the ICTY, reported that UN war crimes investigators and forensic experts from 17 countries who had spent the entire summer digging in over 195 locations in Kosovo where the media had reported on the existence of mass graves and had found absolutely no evidence of any mass graves in Kosovo. Nevertheless, the indictment of Milosevic for war crimes in Kosovo remained.
After Milosevic was kidnapped and brought to The Hague, the ICTY realized that they could never make a charge for something like "genocide" stick regarding Kosovo. The only "massacres" that took place there were the mass killings from NATO bombing raids. So the additional charges regarding Bosnia and Croatia were added to the indictment against Milosevic. In Croatia, the biggest massacre took place during "Operation Storm" in the summer of 1995. This was an attack by the neo-fascist Croatian regime and its army, planned with the assistance of allegedly retired US generals, aimed at the Serb-origin population of the Krajina region of Croatia. Serbs whose families had lived in the region for centuries were driven out and became refugees in Serbia. This left Bosnia, where there was a bloody three-sided civil war that lasted from 1992 to 1995.
The ICTY ignored the fact that the international community -- that is, the diplomats of the big powers -- had praised Milosevic for helping bring about the Dayton Accord in 1995 that ended the civil war. Instead, they tried but failed to show that he had operational command of the Bosnian Serb forces. The ICTY prosecutors thought that by bringing hundreds of witnesses to generate 500,000 pages of prosecution testimony from February 2002 to February 2004 they could make a case against Milosevic that would look strong. But his determination to keep fighting defeated them.
As Milosevic said in his defense speech, he was honored to be defending himself because "truth and justice are on my side."
At this point the ICTY is an entire multi-million dollar industry at The Hague and in the Balkans. The two-year budget for the Tribunal for 2004 and 2005 was $271 million. The court expenses have been $500 million in the last five years alone. Private corporations and foundations pay a substantial part of the budget. There are more than 1,200 employees of the court from 84 countries.
There are special, separate prison guards, monitors, greeters, translators, clerks, administrators, teams of rotating judges available for different cases, each with staff, a large prosecutors department with teams of lawyers, investigators, researchers. Hundreds of other individuals have part-time employment and consulting jobs in the Balkans. In a region where unemployment is enormous, the ICTY payroll is a huge source of funds.
There are no set rules for the ICTY. The judges can make quite arbitrary decisions ruling about what testimony is legal or not. For example, when General Wesley Clark, who directed NATO's 1999 war against Yugoslavia, testified for the prosecution he was allowed to testify in secret and not in a public session. In addition, the US government was granted the right to review Wesley Clark's testimony before the transcripts were released. Further, the judge ruled that Milosevic on cross-examination could not ask General Wesley Clark "anything at all about the war waged by NATO against Yugoslavia."
The general had written a book about his experiences in the war in which he made it clear that the military command had purposely bombed civilian targets in an attempt to wear down the resistance of the Yugoslavs and try to turn the population against the government. This came out because there was a struggle within the Pentagon command regarding how to divide the bombing effort. Some argued for striking military targets in Kosovo -- allegedly the reason for entering the war, that is, as a "humanitarian" effort to protect ethnic Albanians in Kosovo -- and to strike Serbia. Others argued for focusing all the effort at striking the civilian infrastructure in Serbia. One can see why the U.S. didn't want this type of testimony to come out in the sessions.
JC: Some of Milosevic's supporters say that he was killed by the ICTY. What evidence do they have of this?
SF: I know there will be many people, especially inside the United States, who will claim that such a murder is impossible, that the ICTY would never do this, that there is no evidence. Since we have no secret evidence, probably the best way to discuss this question is to simply state some facts that are easy to check.
First of all, this would not be the first time NATO was involved in an effort to assassinate President Milosevic. On April 22, 1999, NATO forces fired a missile directly in the bedroom window of his private residence. He wasn't in the house at that time and escaped death. It was only after this failed attempt at assassination that on May 27 NATO got the ICTY to announce the indictment of Milosevic for war crimes in Kosovo. The US and NATO rulers believed five years ago that a show trial of Milosevic would help subdue Serbia and turn it into a more willing colony. Now, with the ICTY's case against him in shambles, they were again better off if Milosevic could be made to disappear.
Second, everyone is aware the CIA has been involved in assassinations and attempted assassinations of heads of state. There are even jokes about all the failed attempts to kill Fidel Castro. Patrice Lumumba was assassinated in the Congo.
But even if you put all the above aside, and you don't believe that the ICTY poisoned Milosevic outright, it is responsible for his death because the ICTY systematically denied Milosevic proper medical treatment. Despite the life-threatening cardiovascular risk raised in every dispute with the prosecution, tribunal officials refused even to secure regular checkups of the president's health condition. They also denied access for months to specialists who were willing to come to Scheveningen, thus delaying his care.
There were several mass international campaigns to demand that the court allow Milosevic to see doctors of his choosing and specialists who could examine his dangerous heart condition. Tests for his heart condition were demanded again and again. Thousands of people in Serbia and around the world signed petitions demanding that specialists be allowed to visit him. It was only in the fall of 2005 that a team of three medical specialists from France, Russia, and Serbia was allowed to examine Milosevic. On November 12, 2005, I attended an emergency conference in Belgrade that focused on Milosevic's health problems. The team had released a grave warning that there was serious danger to former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's life if the US-orchestrated show trial at The Hague continued without regard to his deteriorating health. The team urged an immediate six-week break in the proceedings to allow time for medical treatment. The ICTY ignored this request.
On March 18, 2006, the New York Times reported that Russian heart specialist Dr. Leo Bokeria, who flew to The Hague to review the autopsy reports on Milosevic, said that "two stents" for blocked arteries could have saved his life and given him many long years. In other words, this was not just neglectful treatment by the ICTY, but a systematic and intentional denial of adequate medical care.
In a letter addressed to the Russian Embassy two days before he died, Milosevic wrote that he had taken no antibiotics in more than four years. He asked why the medical report on the discovery of rifampicin was kept secret from him for almost two months. He wrote that he believed that "active steps are being taken to destroy my health." He warned that he was sure he was being poisoned and that his life was in danger. The president had good reason to suspect foul play. Last January 12, tests performed by the ICTY doctors found the antibiotic rifampicin in Milosevic's blood. The ICTY kept the report of the blood tests secret, even from Milosevic and his doctors, who were complaining at the time that something terribly wrong was damaging the defendant's health. While the prisoner and his defense committee and assistant lawyers were demanding health information, the ICTY officials sat on this report.
Then the Dutch authorities claimed that Milosevic was taking a rare, difficult-to-acquire antibiotic used to treat leprosy or tuberculosis that has the unique ability to counteract the medicine he was taking to control his high blood pressure. If the authorities believed this, why hadn't they publicized this report earlier? How did this medicine, rifampicin, get into Milosevic's system? He was held in a maximum security prison in triple lockdown in a special contained unit within a larger Dutch prison once used by the Nazis to detain Dutch resistance fighters.
Claims that Milosevic staged his illness -- and risked killing himself -- to delay the trial are equally outlandish. Each time Milosevic was too sick to continue in court, the prosecution moved to impose counsel and to take away the prisoner's right to present his own defense. When I met Milosevic it was in the special room that was the only place where the ICTY allowed him to work or have the court papers to prepare his defense. Whenever his blood pressure rose and he was unable to continue the court sessions, he was also barred from any access to his defense materials.
Milosevic was determined to use the trial as a platform to defend not only himself but the people of Yugoslavia, and to indict the U.S., Germany, and the NATO powers for their role in the criminal destruction of his country. He welcomed the trial as the only platform where he could make the historical record. In his words to the court he constantly described why, despite his bad health, he was determined to continue.
The only thing the court did about Milosevic's acknowledged heart condition was to use it as an excuse to deny him access to his defense papers for days at a time, whenever his blood pressure went up too high. During each step of the trial Milosevic's cardiovascular problems, especially his high blood pressure, had resulted in several delays in the trial. At each step the ICTY officials tried to use the issue of his health as they made constant efforts to deny him the right to conduct his own defense. Neither the illness nor the delays helped his defense.
The ICTY had earlier charged that Milosevic was secretly medicating himself and avoiding taking prescribed medicines. Milosevic answered this charge himself for the court record on September 1, 2004: "You probably don't know the practice in your own Detention Unit. I take my medication in the presence of guards. I'm given them. I take them in the presence of the guard, and the guard writes down in the book the exact time when I ingested those medicines."
JC: At one point you and other witnesses told the ICTY you would not appear in the sessions if summoned. What was that about?
SF: Milosevic had to win and win again his basic right to defend himself. At every step the court sought to deny him this right and to impose counsel. The ICTY really feared that Milosevic was successfully taking advantage of his position as defendant and counsel to make a strong political case. Even after two years of his well-demonstrated ability to cross-examine all the prosecutions witnesses, the court again moved to silence Milosevic and impose counsel in order to speed up the trial. Once he laid out this well reasoned, researched, and detailed presentation of his entire defense on August 31 and September 1, 2004, the ICTY again moved to impose counsel on him and deny him the right to defend himself.
I, along with hundreds of other witnesses who had agreed to testify for the defense, sent letters notifying the court that we were outraged by the ICTY decision to impose counsel on Milosevic against his will and to deprive him of his lawful and fundamental right to self defense. Under these court-imposed conditions we each wrote to the court that we could not participate as witnesses in the proceedings.
Faced with a mass insurrection of all of the witnesses that Milosevic had called and the ICTY had already approved, and the inability of the imposed counsel, Steven Kaye, to provide any witnesses, the ICTY was forced to back down in its attempt to deny Milosevic his right to present his own defense. The media kept repeating after he died that Milosevic faced 66 counts of war crimes charges. Whether it was 66 or 66 million, none of them had been proven. His death saved the ICTY from either convicting him without sufficient evidence or admitting that he could not be found guilty of these charges. In the course of the four years of proceedings, Milosevic had shown that the real "butchers of the Balkans" were found not in Belgrade but in Berlin, Brussels, and Washington.
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