Sun, Jul 18, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Why tyrants must stand trial

Making war criminals answer for their actions is a long and tedious process. But humanity needs to hear the truth

By David Cesarani  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

ILLUSTRATION: LOUISE TING

The trial of Slobodan Milosevic in the Hague is in trouble, a worrying augury when former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein awaits further days in court.

The problem is not Milosevic's failing health. His trial has dragged on for two years and the prosecution has only now completed its case. He has been presented with 400,000 pages of evidence. One observer noted that, if the former Serbian leader read three pages a minute, 12 hours a day, seven days a week, it would take him more than six months to ingest the evidence. This would floor a well man.

Even if counsel is foisted on Milosevic, his lawyer will have to digest the mass of material.

Then there are the witnesses Milosevic intends to call: French President Jacques Chirac, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and former US president Bill Clinton. Milosevic doubtless wants to accuse the Western leaders of war crimes by sanctioning the bombing of Belgrade. He will point to international bullies, such as China, who have escaped their attention, and claim the tribunal represents "victors' justice." The potential embarrassment is unlimited.

This should come as no surprise. The trial of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961-2 is widely regarded as a crucial step along the path that leads to Milosevic and Saddam facing justice today. The prosecution of the man who organized the annihilation of Europe's Jews is celebrated for advancing the application of international law covering crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide. The Eichmann trial is also credited with raising public awareness of the Nazi persecution and mass murder of Jews. It is seen as a classic "historic trial."

Eichmann example

But scrutiny of the Eichmann trial, and the Nuremberg tribunal of 1945-46 on which it drew precedent, helps to explain why the Milosevic trial has run into trouble. It should also serve as a warning, rather than an inspiration, to those now contemplating the trial of Saddam.

As head of the Jewish Office of the Gestapo between 1941 and 1944, Eichmann oversaw the deportation of millions of Jews to death camps. He escaped to Argentina and remained undetected until 1957. In May 1960, the Israeli secret service kidnapped Eichmann in violation of Argentine sovereignty.

It is a myth that former Israeli prime minister David Ben Gurion wanted a trial to tell the world of the genocide of the Jews. But when the abduction was denounced at the UN, and prominent Jews demanded Eichmann appear before an international tribunal, Ben Gurion saw how a trial could demonstrate the rationale for Jewish statehood.

Eichmann would be tried in Jerusalem precisely to show that the Jews now determined their own fate -- and that of any enemy who fell into their hands.

Initially, preparation of the Eichmann case was handled by the Israeli police. They sought documents and witnesses that linked him directly to the genocide. This resulted in a case confined to geographical areas where there was a paper trail incriminating Eichmann.

But when the newly-appointed attorney general of Israel, Gideon Hausner, took over the prosecution he revamped the case. He wanted the trial to recall the genocidal campaign against Europe's Jews.

Hausner, under intense political pressure, doubled the number of witnesses to provide this scope and give the hearings an emotional edge. Ben Gurion intervened to ensure that his role in unsuccessful and controversial rescue negotiations with the Nazis was never mentioned. Former foreign minister Golda Meir wanted comparisons made with the fate of black Africans under colonialism.

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