"The time has come for a radical review of the trial process ... in light of the health of the accused," presiding judge Patrick Robinson said before adjourning the hearing on the day Milosevic had been due to launch his defense.
A feisty Milosevic, clad in his trademark blue suit, accused judges of putting his health at risk by calling him into court Monday "not based on legal reasons" but for the sake of "politics and the media" surrounding the trial. "My health situation has deteriorated as a direct result of your refusal to enable me to get my health back," he said.
The mammoth trial has already dragged on for over two years. The former president had been due Monday to launch his defense to more than 60 charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide arising out of the bloody Balkans conflicts in the 1990s.
But a doctor's report read by Robinson said the former Serbian strongman, 62, was at risk because he suffered from "extremely high blood pressure". Court-appointed doctors say that Milosevic is at risk of a heart attack, especially during periods of stress. "It is absolutely essential that Milosevic rests," the judge said, quoting from the report.
Finished by 2005?
Seen as the most important war crimes trial in Europe since World War II, the trial is not normally expected to finish until at least mid-2005.
Milosevic, who refuses to acknowledge the legality of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), has been acting as his own lawyer. He had been working long hours to prepare his defense, putting a strain on his already fragile health.
According to the judges, the trial proceedings and even its continuation would now have to be examined. Robinson said the court would publish a written decision on these issues on Monday or Tuesday.
Milosevic's opening statement, which had been expected to be an attempt to boost his waning popularity in Serbia, was also postponed indefinitely until the judges decide how and if the trial can continue.
"The date for my opening statement should not be fixed earlier than a month from now," Milosevic said. The trial has already been interrupted over a dozen times because Milosevic has felt ill.
The charges relate to his alleged central role in the wars in Croatia in 1991-95, Bosnia in 1992-95 and Kosovo in 1998-99. For the bloody conflict in Bosnia which left 200,000 people dead, he faces separate charges of genocide, the gravest of war crimes. If convicted he could be sentenced to life imprisonment.
The prosecution on Monday suggested that the court either impose counsel on Milosevic or set up a video link so Milosevic can follow the trial from the detention unit. Both suggestions were categorically rejected by the former president.
"It is a stalemate: either Milosevic gets so ill that the trial cannot continue or there will be long interruptions making it impossible to manage the case, or the judges will impose counsel and Milosevic will refuse to cooperate," legal expert and tribunal watcher Heikelina Verrijn Stuart told the AFP news agency.
She said she expected the judges would not stop the trial but were likely to impose a lawyer even if Milosevic objected.Milosevic has said he will call world leaders like British Prime Minister Tony Blair, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and former US president Bill Clinton to take the stand, but it is unlikely they will come to The Hague without an official summons.