Slobodan Milosevic faces the first prosecution witnesses on Croatia and Bosnia on Friday in what is expected to be the weightiest part of his war crimes trial.
In opening statements on Thursday of the second phase of Milosevic's trial, UN prosecutors promised to connect the former Yugoslav leader to the genocide of thousands of Bosnians and Croats during the early 1990s.
With the first phase of the trial, dealing with Serbian atrocities in Kosovo in 1999 behind him, Milosevic faces allegations of the worst human rights violations since Hitler. Prosecutor Geoffrey Nice took 80 minutes to read off the 61 counts of murder, torture and genocide on Thursday at the War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague, Netherlands.
"These were the gravest violations of human rights in Europe since the Second World War," he told the three-judge panel. "Slobodan Milosevic is criminally responsible for these violations."
Milosevic, who is representing himself, maintained that he was working for peace in the region during the wars in Bosnia and Crotia from 1991 to 1995. He showed a documentary portraying the Serb populations in Croatia as victims of civil wars in the region.
The 61-year-old former president has provided a furious and vigorous defense of his regime since his war crimes trial opened last February. He has done it while at the same time refusing to recognize the tribunal as a legitimate judicial institution.
Observers say the pressure is on the prosecution to do a better job of linking Milosevic to atrocities with concrete evidence, something critics say UN Chief Prosecutor Carla Del Ponte failed to do during the first phase of the trial that ended four weeks ago.
"No smoking gun" just "shafts of light"
But there will be no magic piece of evidence or "smoking gun" in the second trial, Prosecutor Nice told the judges. He said each witness will shed "differing shafts of light" on Milosevic's responsibility for numerous crimes, including the massacre at the town of Srebrenica that claimed 10,000 lives and the 46-week period where Bosnian Serbs laid siege to the city of Sarajevo.
He said the Yugoslav army paid the Bosnian Serbs responsible for the siege of Sarajevo even as Milosevic publicly condemned it. Prosecutors also said Serbian interior ministry police were involved in ethnic cleansing at Srebrenica.
The attacks were part of a grander Serb plan to carve out an ethnically-pure Serbian state, said prosecutors, of which Milosevic was involved.
"The systematic and organized way in which attacks against non-Serb civilian populations in Croatia were carried out revealed a carefully deisgned scheme and strategy within an overall plan that may be laid at the door of the accused," Nice said in opening statements.
Cooperation still "fractious"
Chief Prosecutor Del Ponte gave a few short remarks at the beginning of Thursday's proceedings, lamenting Yugoslavia's "fractious" cooperation with the war crimes tribunal in Ththe Hague. She urged the current Yugoslavian government to send more of Milosevic's aides to testify.
Bosnian protestors outside of the trial demanded renewed efforts to capture war criminals Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, who have so far eluded the grasp of NATO troops in the Balkans.
Around 177 witnesses will be called by the prosecution in this phase of the trial, including prominents like Croatian President Stjepan Mesic and USA top diplomat and UN Ambassador Richard Holbrooke.