THE HAGUE, Netherlands – When U.N. prosecutors opened their case against Slobodan Milosevic (search) two years ago, they set out to get him convicted of genocide. The consensus today is, they failed.
Legal experts say prosecutors at the U.N. war crimes tribunal have assembled solid evidence on lesser charges against the former Yugoslav president. But acquittal on the genocide (search) charge — the crime of all crimes, experts say — would have far-reaching implications.
Many Serbs would cheer it as vindicating their view that Serbia stands wrongly accused. Others likely will see it as a distortion of Europe's darkest chapter since World War II. And it may provide important lessons for those planning a trial for Saddam Hussein (search).
On Wednesday, after calling 296 witnesses, prosecutors abruptly rested their case earlier than planned, seeking to avoid further delays caused by Milosevic's illness, which has interrupted the trial nearly 20 times and cost it 65 days.
The trial, troubled from the start, suffered a further setback with the unexpected announcement Feb. 22 that presiding British judge Richard May, 65, is ill and will resign.
Whoever succeeds him will have to catch up on about 60,000 pages of documentary evidence and courtroom transcripts.
Milosevic's defense will open June 8. With or without a conviction in the 1995 genocide of Bosnian Muslims, he faces possible life imprisonment.
Milosevic, 62, has high blood pressure and has suffered repeated bouts of exhaustion from the strain of conducting his own defense and preparing cross-examinations.
"His health has deteriorated since the beginning of the trial and it is much worse than he would like to admit," one of his legal associates, Zdenko Tomanovic, told The Associated Press.
"The defense case is very important, not only for Milosevic, but for entire Serbia because of the potentially large psychological, historical, economical and legal consequences."
Milosevic faces 66 counts including war crimes, genocide and complicity in genocide in the 1992-1995 Bosnian war. The most serious relate to the July 1995 killing of at least 7,500 Muslims in the eastern Bosnian enclave of Srebrenica.
"The prosecution was underwhelming," said Michael Scharf, international law professor and author of books on Balkan war crimes.
"But bit by bit, piece by piece, they proved their case, at least for many of the charges. It will at least be enough to put him in jail for the rest of his life," Scharf said in a telephone interview from Cleveland.
"The genocide was the key charge. If Milosevic was acquitted of genocide it would send a misleading signal about the nonexistence of genocide. I believe it did occur."
From the outset, prosecutors faced challenges in proving Milosevic guilty, not least because as president of Serbia he had no formal ties to murderous Bosnian Serb forces.
The prosecutors fought Serbian officials endlessly to call insiders to testify and obtain important documents, and were frequently rebuffed.
Trial-watchers believe the prosecutors built an impregnable case that Milosevic was involved in war crimes in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo during the wars of the 1990s that tore apart the Yugoslav federation.
But they failed to show an intent to commit genocide, experts said.
Judith Armatta of the Washington-based Coalition for International Justice (search), who closely follows Milosevic's trial, said a genocide conviction seemed unlikely, but "we might get complicity in genocide."
To convict a suspect of genocide, there must be proof of a plan to wipe out "in whole or in part" an ethnic or religious group.
The court already has ruled in another case, against Gen. Radislav Krstic, that what happened in Srebrenica was genocide. Krstic was sentenced to 46 years in prison. He is appealing the conviction.
But prosecutors have found no smoking gun linking Milosevic to the Srebrenica (search) massacres. The closest evidence was an order, not issued by Milosevic, to deploy Serbian troops in the area.
Yet Serbian political insiders, in their testimony, described Milosevic as a leader who wielded unrivaled influence over the Serbian army, police and special forces responsible for a campaign of murder and persecution to create a larger, united Serb state.
"They were damning. They showed Milosevic was there dictating what happened. They showed he had direct-control lines of authority through the Serbian police and security service and the army," Armatta said.
Balkan peace envoys testified that Milosevic knew Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic (search) and his top general, Ratko Mladic, intended to slaughter Srebrenica's Muslims and did not stop them. Both men top the tribunal's list of most-wanted fugitives.
If the judges accept the view of Milosevic as omnipotent, it could produce a conviction for complicity in genocide, Armatta said.