Milosevic and Saddam: Two Trials, Two Tales

Mark Vlasic served as a prosecuting attorney in the trial of Slobodan Milosevic and helped train Iraqi judges serving on Saddam Hussein's tribunal. He discusses similarities and differences in the two cases with Scott Simon.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Saddam Hussein's trial for crimes against humanity is in recess until November 28th. Iraq's former president and seven others are standing trial in Baghdad for the 1982 torture and killings of 148 men and boys. Saddam Hussein responded to the charges against him this week by declaring that he's still the president of Iraq and he challenged the authority of the court. The next day one of the attorneys representing another defendant was kidnapped and killed, underscoring the security threats to any trial in Iraq.

Saddam Hussein is going to trial at the same time that Slobodan Milosevic, the former leader of Serbia, is entering his third year of trial with no end in sight. Mark Vlasic served as a prosecuting attorney for a year at the Slobodan Milosevic trial. He also worked for two years on the Srebrenica case. And he's also helped train judges for the Iraqi court. He joins us in our studios.

Mr. Vlasic, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. MARK VLASIC (Attorney): Thank you very much for having me.

SIMON: Recognizing you, after the advice you've given, might be perceived to have a vested interest, can Saddam Hussein get a fair trial in Iraq?

Mr. VLASIC: I believe he can. I'm probably a little biased in the sense that I actually met the judges that are trying him and I know firsthand how serious they are to ensure that he has a fair trial.

SIMON: They won't feel any pressure to fulfill a guilty verdict, which in the minds of some would legitimize American presence in Iraq?

Mr. VLASIC: I don't think so. I think if you look at the other international tribunals around the world, the major financial backer for the Yugoslav tribunal and the Rwanda tribunal is the United States. And I don't think there's a sense that the US is giving any pressure to judges to render decisions one way or the other.

SIMON: Since you're familiar with both the trials of Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein, I'd like you to, if you could, compare and contrast. One of the most obvious contrasts that people who follow television coverage would note is that Slobodan Milosevic, a lawyer by training, is defending himself; Saddam Hussein is not.

Mr. VLASIC: Well, Saddam is also a lawyer by training. He went to Cairo law school.

SIMON: I meant he's not defending himself, yeah.

Mr. VLASIC: He's not defending himself and I think the--one of the reasons there is because of the example and the lessons learned from the Milosevic case. I think that the Iraqis are concerned with how the trial might proceed if he were defending himself. And I think the fact that he has defense counsel, frankly, is better for the entire process. If you look at other legal systems around the world, usually if you're charged with a capital crime, you are forced to have counsel stand by you and make sure that the case goes according to plan.

SIMON: On the other hand, couldn't the argument be made that the best decision Slobodan Milosevic ever made, at least so far, has been to defend himself, because he's been able to substantially slow down the tempo of the trial?

Mr. VLASIC: I suppose it depends on what your goal is. If your goal is to slow down the trial and write yourself into the pages of Serbian history books as going down as a martyr for the Serbian cause, you've made the right decision. If the decision was to try to have the best defense possible, I think having people as defense counsel would have done a better job in that case because Milosevic spends a lot of time talking about irrelevant material as opposed to really putting facts to witnesses and trying to get the best defense he can get in the case itself.

SIMON: You're familiar with the environment of Iraq today. How do you persuade people to come forward and give testimony?

Mr. VLASIC: Yeah. It's a tremendous problem and it was a problem that we had at the Yugoslav tribunal and the approach that we took was really focusing the discussion on the person's duty to help tell the story, help tell the truth, and so everyone else knows what happened in that country. And I think that will be the major force behind any Iraqi coming forward, because they really will be taking their lives in their own hands, also the lives of their family. And unfortunately, I don't think there's any perfect solution to the problem. I think that the people who come forward do it because they think it's the right thing to do. And if people are looking for absolute guarantees that they will be safe and their entire families will be safe, I don't think anyone's able to promise that they will be safe.

SIMON: Mr. Vlasic, thanks very much.

Mr. VLASIC: Thank you very much.

SIMON: Mark Vlasic was a member of the Slobodan Milosevic trial prosecution team and he also helped train Iraqi judges, including the one chosen to try Saddam Hussein.

And you can read more about the trial of Saddam Hussein on our Web site, npr.org.

And the time is 18 minutes past the hour.

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