March 27, 2006 12:00 PM

Former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic was a living synonym for mass murder. In the 1990s he orchestrated three Balkan wars that led to the slaughter of as many as 250,000 civilians in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo. And at last, he was about to pay for his atrocities. His four-year trial before a United Nations war crimes tribunal was drawing to a close, almost certain to end in conviction and life in prison. But the man known as “the Butcher of the Balkans” cheated justice to the end. On March 11 he died of cardiac arrest at 64 in his prison cell in The Hague—setting off a flurry of theories when his autopsy revealed an unauthorized and potentially harmful antibiotic in his system. Was it suicide? Or murder? (Milosevic claimed he was being poisoned.) Or was it just an accident? A leading Dutch toxicologist, Dr. Donald Uges, suggested to The New York Times that Milosevic—who was being treated for chronic high blood pressure—purposely took the other drug to interfere with his regular medicine so he could be sent for treatment to Moscow, where his wife and son live.

Milosevic’s body, according to his lawyers, will be flown back for a funeral in the Serbian capital of Belgrade—a peaceful end denied his victims, buried in mass graves or still missing. “However,” says Richard Dicker of Human Rights Watch, “history’s verdict has already been served.”

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