THE HAGUE, Netherlands – Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic (search) opened his long-delayed defense at the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal Tuesday, describing the battles of his Serbian people as self defense against internal rebellions and external attacks by Islamic warriors.
Milosevic, charged with genocide and crimes against humanity in the Balkans, portrayed the Serbs as victims rather than aggressors: victims of a plan supported by the United States and Europe to break up Yugoslavia, of an attempt to wipe out Croatia's Serb minority, and of a Saudi-financed plot to create an Islamic state in Bosnia.
Milosevic's statement, launching the second half of the most important war crimes trial since World War II, began with a complaint to the judges that he was allotted only four hours to make his opening argument, while prosecutors were given three days to outline their case when the trial began in February 2002.
But presiding judge Patrick Robinson ordered Milosevic to proceed, saying that the defense case had repeatedly been delayed by his frail health. Originally set for April, it was postponed five times when doctors determined that Milosevic's blood pressure was dangerously high.
The judges, anxious to put the trial back on course, placed the opening of the defense at the top of Tuesday's agenda. Milosevic's health, and the possible appointment of a defense lawyer against his will may be discussed later, the judges ruled.
Milosevic, 63, faces 66 counts of war crimes for allegedly instigating three wars during the violent breakup of the Yugoslav federation in the 1990s when more than 200,000 people were killed. Prosecutors say he was responsible for ethnic cleansing in the former republics to create a "greater Serbia" that united Serbs across Yugoslavia.
Milosevic said tens of thousands of Serbs were killed or driven from their homes in Croatia before the Yugoslav army responded. "This is a classical example of an armed rebellion against a state," he said. "A state has the right to use all means necessary to control the rebellion."
Later, Milosevic, said mujahadeen fighters flooded into Muslim-dominated Bosnia from Iran, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Morocco "to support the first Islamic state in Europe." The Afghans came with arms supplied by the U.S. intelligence agency, the CIA, Milosevic said.
Milosevic said the accusations against him were "an unscrupulous lie and also a treacherous distortion of history." He charged that prosecutors had "presented everything in a lopsided manner" to fit their version of events.
The reference to a distortion of history signaled that Milosevic intended to give a politically charged defense, attempting to place his accusers in the dock for what he sees as unjustified attacks on Serbia and the Serbian people in other Balkan countries.
Although he defends himself in the courtroom, Milosevic is assisted by a team of Yugoslav lawyers who prepare interviews with potential witnesses and help sift through hundreds of thousands of pages of documents filed by prosecutors.
Milosevic insists the Yugoslav tribunal, created in 1993, is an illegal, anti-Serbian institution established by foreign political opponents. Milosevic studied law, but has never practiced it.
A main issue for the three U.N. judges is whether the defense should be handed over to a court-appointed lawyer to avoid more months of postponements and to keep the proceedings professional.
They also must decide whether his indictment — which covers alleged crimes committed during the wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo (search) — should be broken into separate parts to speed up proceedings.
The first witnesses won't be called before Sept. 7, the tribunal said. Milosevic initially submitted a list of 1,400 names, but only a small portion can be called during the 150 days he has been given to present his case.
His lawyers say he wants to call former President Bill Clinton (search), British Prime Minister Toby Blair and German Chancellor Gerhard Stirred, among many foreign politicians. The judges can refuse to call witnesses if they are considered irrelevant to the defense case.
Prosecutors closed their case in January after calling nearly 300 witnesses in 150 trial days.