Former Serbian and Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic died on 12 March aged 64 in his cell at the Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). He had spent more than four years in The Hague on trial for 66 charges that included genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity committed during the wars he launched in Croatia (1990-1995), Bosnia-Herzegovina (1992-1995), and Kosovo (1998-1999). Almost since the beginning of his trial in The Hague in February 2002, Slobodan Milosevic has been complaining of ill health. His trial has been repeatedly delayed as he sought medical treatment. As recently as February 24, the court declined Milosevic’s request to travel to Russia for treatment for heart problems and elevated blood pressure, despite pledges from Moscow that Milosevic would be returned to The Hague to continue his trial.
The ICTY announced on March 12 that a preliminary autopsy showed that Slobodan Milosevic died of heart failure (or myocardial infarction). Cardiologists treating Milosevic had warned he was at risk of a hypertensive emergency, a life-threatening condition in which blood pressure surges, potentially damaging the heart, kidneys, and central nervous system. The autopsy was conducted by Dutch scientists and attended by Serbian pathologists. Serbian officials described the autopsy as very professional.
Milosevic wrote a letter to Russia the day before his death saying that doctors were giving him the wrong drugs in an attempt to silence him. In the letter, Milosevic wrote that his blood showed traces of a strong drug used only to treat leprosy and tuberculosis. Milosevic’s family has said the ICTY is responsible for his death because it did not allow him to travel to Russia for treatment.
A Dutch expert said on March 13 that Milosevic took drugs that worsened his health before his death. Donald Uges, a toxicologist at Groningen University, told he thought Milosevic had knowingly taken harmful medicines to improve his case for going for medical treatment to Russia, where his wife, son, and brother live. Uges said tests he conducted two weeks ago on Milosevic’s blood showed traces of rifampicin, a drug used against leprosy and tuberculosis. The drug would have neutralized other medicines Milosevic was taking. "I don’t think he took his medicines for suicide, only for his trip to Moscow”, Uges said. Russian experts who reviewed the autopsy of the late Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic said on 15 March that they agree with the conclusion of Dutch pathologist that he died of a heart attack. The four-member Russian team was despatched to The Hague amid suspicions over the circumstances surrounding Milosevic’s death.
Milosevic’s son Marko travelled to the Netherlands on 14 March to retrieve the body. On 15 March the body was flown to Belgrade. The decision followed days of wrangling between Milosevic’s family and Serbian authorities. Belgrade refused to hold a state funeral and refused to allow Milosevic to be buried in the "Avenue of Heroes" in the capital’s main cemetery. A Belgrade court ruled on March 14 that Milosevic’s widow Mirjana Markovic, who fled to Moscow in 2003 to avoid charges of abuse of power, would not be arrested if she came to Serbia for the funeral. She would, however, face a court hearing and her passport would be confiscated on arrival.
In Serbia-Montenegro, Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic said he was sorry that Milosevic was not tried at home because of the damage he inflicted on Serbia. Federal president Svetozar Marovic, meanwhile, said the death of the top defendant would be a major challenge to the UN war crimes tribunal.
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said he hoped Milosevic’s passing would persuade Serbs to take a clear look at the future. Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik, whose country currently holds the rotating EU Presidency, noted that Belgrade still has the responsibility of handing over the remaining war crimes suspects, including former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic.
In Washington, the US State Department issued a statement voicing hope for Serbia’s prospects. "Milosevic’s rule has long ended, and the United States supports a future for the Serbian people of peace, security, prosperity and greater integration with the Euro-Atlantic community," it said.
The ICTY’s chief war crimes prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, said on March 12 that with Milosevic’s death it is now more urgent than ever to arrest the Bosnian Serb war crime indictees Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, international news agencies reported the same day. "It deprives the victims of the justice they need and deserve," Del Ponte said, referring to the fact that Milosevic’s death prevented a verdict being handed down in his trial. The European Union has given Belgrade until the end of March to apprehend and extradite Mladic, or risk the suspension of talks with Brussels on a Stabilization and Association Agreement, a first step toward membership of the EU.
On 14 March the UN war crimes court at The Hague formally closed the trial of Slobodan Milosevic.