The Hague, Netherlands Flashing the defiance that marked his 13 years in power, Slobodan Milosevic refused to enter a plea on war crimes charges Tuesday in his first appearance before a U.N. tribunal that he said was merely a cover for NATO "crimes" in Yugoslavia.
Appearing at times uneasy, at times arrogant, the former Yugoslav leader stood alone having turned down counsel for the session and expressed his contempt for the court as it arraigned him on four counts linked to a bloody crackdown in Kosovo.
"This trial's aim is to produce false justification for the war crimes of NATO committed in Yugoslavia," Milosevic told the three-judge panel when asked to enter a plea. He said he would not appoint defense attorneys, saying he did not need counsel before an "illegal organ."
Chief Judge Richard May entered a plea of innocent on his behalf and scheduled a procedural hearing for next month.
Milosevic sparred verbally with May, a British judge with a no-nonsense reputation, who repeatedly cut off the former president during the 12-minute hearing to tell him not to make speeches.
Asked whether he wanted the court to read the entire, 51-page indictment, Milosevic who is a lawyer snapped: "That's your problem."
Such demonstrations of defiance were a hallmark of Milosevic's rule, during which he outwitted domestic and international opponents to remain in power despite losing four Balkan wars and presiding over the dismemberment of Yugoslavia.
His courtroom manner appeared aimed primarily at supporters back home watching the proceedings live on radio and television.
But the hearing was a humiliation for the man who was once among the strongest figures in Europe. He had fought bitterly to avoid standing in the dock in The Hague court established in 1993 to try cases stemming from the wars that the United States and its allies believe he inspired and supported.
He was ousted from power in October after a popular uprising forced him to accept electoral defeat. He was arrested April 1 pending charges in Yugoslavia then sent here Thursday night.
In May 1999, Milosevic became the first head of state indicted by the U.N. court. Now he becomes the first former head of state to stand trial before an international court for offenses allegedly committed during his rule. Human rights organizations consider the case against Milosevic the most significant since the Nuremberg Trials after World War II.
The charges against Milosevic include deportation, a crime against humanity; murder, a crime against humanity; murder, a crime against laws or customs of war; and persecution on ethnic or religious grounds, a crime against humanity.
All carry a life sentence. The charges stem from atrocities allegedly committed during the Kosovo crackdown two years ago, which ended after a 78-day NATO bombing campaign forced Yugoslav forces to hand over the province to the United Nations and a NATO-led peacekeeping force.
Milosevic has consistently maintained that his actions were to save his country from Western domination and that the world has ignored NATO's "crimes," including the bombing of civilian targets in and out of Kosovo.
Tribunal officials also expect to indict Milosevic for offenses in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina by October. His trial is expected to begin in about eight months and may last two years.