The war-crimes trial of former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic in the Hague has already lasted two years. Now, with the announcement that presiding judge Richard May will step down on May 31 for unspecified health reasons, it will likely last even longer. Prosecutors decided to wrap up their case two days early in an effort to avoid further delays. Although officials at the International Criminal Tribunal say that May's departure will not seriously disrupt the trial, it could be a lucky break for Milosevic. He has a right to appeal against the appointment of a new judge or demand a retrial. And the remaining two judges will have to stay on for the duration. If another one resigns, the trial will be automatically annulled. In the meantime, the court has set a date of June 8 for Milosevic who is representing himself to open his defense against 66 charges of genocide and war crimes.
Zdenko Tomanovic, Milosevic's legal adviser in the Hague, said his client has not yet decided how to respond to May's departure. "Over the past few weeks, [Milosevic] has been unable to attend the hearings because of illness, let alone deal with such a serious matter as the continuation of the trial or a request for a retrial," Tomanovic told Serbian radio station B92. In Belgrade Milosevic's supporters, invigorated after forming an alliance with newly-elected Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, are triumphant. "The trial has collapsed," Ivica Dacic, a former aide to Milosevic and a leader of his Socialist Party of Serbia, told reporters. "Even if it resumes, Milosevic's defense will easily prove that all charges against him are false."
But Milosevic's opponents aren't giving up. "The trial is way too important to fall through for technical reasons," says human-rights activist Natasa Kandic. "It has to be pursued no matter how long it takes."