THE HAGUE, Netherlands – Slobodan Milosevic's (search) court-appointed lawyers called the first witness in his defense case Tuesday, as the former Yugoslav president demanded he be handed back the right to represent himself before the U.N. war crimes tribunal (search).
Milosevic, who faces 66 charges of war crimes stemming from the Balkan wars in the 1990s, argued with the judges and accused his assigned defense attorney, Steven Kay, of trying to "dilute the testimony of the witness."
The first defense witness, Milosevic's former law professor Smilja Avramov, testified about her years as the Yugoslav Foreign Ministry's legal adviser before the wars that tore Yugoslavia apart and about Serbs' perception of the nationalist threats against them.
Before the witness was called, Kay told the court that Milosevic had refused to see him and his associate Monday evening and Tuesday morning. His only contact, he said, was "indirect, through the registrar" of the court.
Milosevic was told he might be able to question Avramov when Kay finished, but Milosevic said he would not accept "crumbs" from the court.
"I have no intention of exercising any rights as Mr. Kay's assistant. I'm not going to accept that. I ask you to return my right of self-defense to me," the former Serbian leader said.
Judges appointed the defense lawyers against Milosevic's will last Thursday, citing potential further delays in proceedings due to the former president's heart trouble. Milosevic rejects the tribunal's jurisdiction and has said he will appeal the decision.
Presiding Judge Patrick Robinson refused Kay's request to let Milosevic question Avramov himself, prompting an angry outburst from Milosevic, who denounced his court-appointed defense as "a legal fiction."
But Robinson cut him off, saying: "I don't want to hear the same tired refrain."
Avramov, a retired Serbian international law professor and ultra-nationalist, wrote in the mid-1990s that the U.N. Security Council had no legal authority to try Milosevic.
Avramov testified that Yugoslavia had been at the brink of civil war for nearly 50 years until the breakup of Yugoslavia. She blamed the outbreak of fighting on the secession of the Yugoslav republics Slovenia and Croatia, which "refused to respect federal laws."
Backing Milosevic's claim that Serbia was acting in self-defense, she said the country was being targeted by terrorists seeking to divide Yugoslavia along ethnic lines.
She rejected prosecution allegations that Milosevic sought to carve out a "greater Serbia" by ethnically cleansing non-Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia as "ridiculous, to put it mildly."
The trial, which began in February 2002, has been set back by at least six months because of Milosevic's high blood pressure.
Milosevic spent around five hours presenting his opening statement last week, a moment his legal aides said he had waited for since being transferred from Belgrade to detention in the Netherlands in 2001.
Judges had been wary of appearing to infringe on Milosevic's right to defend himself, for fear of giving ammunition to opponents of the tribunal who call the proceedings a show trial.
Prosecutors had asked the court from the beginning to impose a lawyer on Milosevic, fearing he would use court time to address his followers back home in Serbia.
The judges finally were swayed by reports from two cardiologists warning that the defendant's life would be at risk if he continued representing himself in court.
Attorneys Kay and Gillian Higgins, until now monitors or "friends of the court" overseeing the fairness of the proceedings, face a tough task without their client's cooperation. It is also unclear if the witnesses Milosevic had intended to call will still be willing to testify.