In a legal first, a high-ranking suspect before the United Nations tribunal on the former Yugoslavia sought Wednesday to win the release of intelligence information from NATO countries to support his defense against allegations of war crimes in Kosovo.
A lawyer for former Yugoslav army commander General Dragoljub Ojdanic opened three days of pretrial arguments at the UN tribunal. Eight NATO countries, including the US, participated in the proceedings.
Ojdanic was indicted alongside former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic for his alleged criminal role in a 1999 crackdown by Serbian forces on Kosovo's ethnic Albanian population.
The Kosovo conflict came to an end after a 78-day NATO bombing campaign against Milosevic's Serbian army.
Ojdanic's lawyer wants the court to order several NATO countries to turn over any conversations their intelligence agencies recorded in Yugoslavia between January and July 1999, in which his client took part. He also asked for any documents or statements on record made by Ojdanic.
"General Ojdanic is not guilty. He never planned, instigated, order, committed or otherwise aided and abetted any war crimes," his American defense lawyer, Peter Robinson, told a panel of three UN war crimes judges. "We need this evidence in these proceedings today to prove that."
Robinson said his client's "extraordinary request" for intelligence from 15 countries was the first in the history of UN war crimes courts.
Lawyers from the Netherlands and Canada said the court should reject what they called "an irrelevant fishing expedition" that threatened to jeopardize their national security. Canada argued that the tribunal would set a dangerous precedent if it granted the request.
No lawyers attended on behalf of Belgium, Iceland, Poland, Luxembourg or NATO.
Ojdanic, 63, faces five counts of crimes against humanity and violations of the laws and customs of war for allegedly taking part in a criminal plan to deport or murder Albanians in the southern Serbian province. Milosevic, who allegedly designed the plan, is on trial for the same alleged crimes.
Judges appeared skeptical, with Iain Bonomy of Scotland calling the request "extremely wide."
Robinson, the defense lawyer, rejected that characterization.
"The request is narrow enough to think you're fishing in a relatively limited pond and there's a lot of fish underneath," Robinson said.
The countries Ojdanic seeks information from are Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Poland, the UK and the US.