Reuters, April 01, 2001
Depressed Milosevic pleads not guilty
By Andrew Gray
BELGRADE (Reuters) - Yugoslav ex-president Slobodan Milosevic, the central figure in a decade of Balkan wars, has been arrested and jailed after a 36-hour armed stand-off with the reformists who ousted him last year.
His lawyer said he pleaded not guilty to charges of diverting state funds and was remanded in custody for the customary 30-day period in Belgrade's central prison.
A doctor examined the one-time national hero, 59, and found him exhausted from the weekend ordeal with slightly elevated blood pressure but otherwise in good health. He was prescribed tranquillisers, defence counsel Toma Fila said.
Western governments hailed the arrest as a first step towards trying Milosevic at the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague, where he is charged with crimes against humanity in 1999, when atrocities were committed against Kosovo ethnic Albanians.
"Milosevic's arrest should be a first step toward trying him for the crimes against humanity with which he is charged," U.S. President George W. Bush said. "His arrest represents an important step in bringing to a close the tragic era of his brutal dictatorship."
But Belgrade's reformists insisted the move, their most dangerous since they took power last October, had been carried out purely so Milosevic can face domestic charges of abuse of office for stealing well over $100 million in state funds.
"The decision was made to start an investigation and the detention has been set for 30 days, as usual," Fila told reporters through the barred gates of Belgrade's central prison.
"He has a special conditions...but that only means he has running hot and cold water. It is not a five star hotel.
Milosevic's ominous vow never to be captured alive was just "something people say when they get emotional," Toma said.
He knew such a stand could also mean the deaths of a score of loyal bodyguards and that was why he surrendered peacefully.
"Milosevic said at the hearing that he was not guilty. Not under any single count on the charge sheet," Fila said, adding in a radio interview that Milosevic was "depressed" and did not know why he was being incarcerated.
His highly influential wife Mirjana visited him in prison.
NO QUICK TRANSFER TO HAGUE
An investigative judge will question Milosevic on the basis of the preliminary charges, which say he used four of his top aides to redirect almost two billion Yugoslav dinars and foreign funds from 1994 to his ouster in October last year.
The arrest ended several days of drama, tension and confusion over the fate of the former president that included a shootout between black-clad masked police commandos and his own private guards during one of two failed attempts to grab him.
In the end, Milosevic agreed to give himself up and was transferred to Belgrade's central prison in the early hours of the morning from the official residence in Belgrade that he had continued to occupy despite his political downfall.
The former president's adult daughter Marija fired several shots in the air in anger after Milosevic was taken away, according to Serbian Interior Minister Dusan Mihajlovic.
"Mr Milosevic will enjoy all the rights granted to him by the law," said Mihajlovic. He must be brought to trial within six months and could face five to 15 years in prison if found guilty of the charges levelled against him.
"We can decide on extraditing Milosevic or any other Yugoslav citizen only after a law on cooperation with the Hague tribunal is passed," said Serbian Justice Minister Vladan Batic.
The drama played out as a U.S.-imposed deadline expired on Saturday night for Yugoslavia to show it was cooperating with the war crimes tribunal and embracing democracy or risk losing vital financial support from Washington.
The United States made clear that arresting Milosevic would help Belgrade get a favourable verdict. State Department officials said their decision would be revealed on Monday.
Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia said he was innocent of all charges. "The first act of a staged political trial has begun," party vice president Branislav Ivkovic said.
Events began early on Friday evening when Serbian police tried to take over Milosevic's security detail as a prelude to his arrest. Government officials said he had been arrested but Milosevic later greeted supporters outside his home.
The operation exposed splits between the police and the Yugoslav army, whose soldiers officially guard the residence in Belgrade's Dedinje suburb, and within the ruling reform bloc.
Some reformers accused members of the army of siding with Milosevic and hinted that Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica had not brought the military into line. The sides seemed to patch up their differences at a meeting on Saturday.
Officials feared a bloodbath as Milosevic's guards were heavily armed with weapons including rocket- propelled grenades. They began negotiations for his surrender.
"Frankly, I didn't expect a peaceful outcome. He said he wouldn't turn himself in alive. Other reports said he had threatened to kill his family and the people around him," said Assistant Federal Interior Minister Goran Vesic.
Western governments welcomed the arrest but said Milosevic would also have to face a trial at the tribunal in The Hague.
He is widely regarded as having fanned the flames of Serbian nationalism at the core of wars which spread across the old Yugoslavia in the 1990s, killing and displacing hundreds of thousands of people in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo.
"This is very welcome news to all those who have struggled so long to bring peace and justice to the Balkans," British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said.
Carla del Ponte, The Hague tribunal's chief prosecutor, said she wanted Milosevic in The Hague by the end of the year.
People in the streets of Belgrade said they were delighted to hear of the arrest of the once wildly popular Milosevic but many felt he should not be transferred to the tribunal.
Western powers viewed Milosevic with distaste yet were forced to involve him in Bosnian peace efforts in 1995. But three years later, his bloody crackdown on ethnic Albanians in Kosovo prompted NATO's 1999 air war against Yugoslavia.