Karadzic trial: proud Serb defiance vs. victims' stories

The Radovan Karadzic trial may not deliver justice, but it will give victims a chance to tell what happened.

If Radovan Karadzic suffers remorse for the bloodshed suffered under his charge, he has not shown it this week. The former supreme commander of the Bosnian Serb Army entered the courtroom proudly as his trial resumed on Monday, ready to deliver a message to the world. The Serb role in the 1992-1995 Balkan War was “just and holy,” he declared, and Serbs acted in self-defense against the Bosnian “dark forces.” With a flamboyant confidence fit for the stage, Mr. Karadzic seeks to justify his role in the greatest European tragedy since the Holocaust. 

But while Karadzic may view the courtroom as his theater, most of the audience sees his trial as a reminder of something all too real.

At last, Karadzic meets the bar of justice. On Monday began one of the most significant trials of our time. Karadzic has not been shy. His aim is to subvert the “biased” Western narrative and declare his version of what took place in Bosnia during the Balkan War. He now has his chance to tell the truth. So, too, will the victims.

For over 12 years, Karadzic remained at large as an indicted war crimes fugitive. In July 2008, he was finally discovered near Serbia’s capital city of Belgrade, disguised as a new age healer. He was then transferred to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, Netherlands. There, Karadzic will defend himself against the charges of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. 

Will this trial bring justice? Nothing can right the wrongs suffered in Bosnia during the war. Yet some have criticized the ICTY for either going too far or not far enough in seeking just resolution to the Balkan conflict. Despite these criticisms, the court still provides one thing that nothing else can: a voice for the victims. If history is based on who writes it, this trial can offer their account of what really happened. 

The indictment is chilling. It describes how in Sarajevo, Karadzic led a four-year campaign of terror to purge the city of non-Serbs. Rocket launches, snipings, and shellings shrank Sarajevo’s population by 64 percent of its prewar size. Casualties approached 75,000, with the city left in ruins. It also points to Karadzic as the mastermind of the infamous Srebrenica massacre of July 1995, where 7,500 Muslim men and boys were systematically marched off and slaughtered. 

Aside from former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, who died in 2006 before his trial could end, Karadzic is the highest profile figure to come before the ICTY. Like Mr. Milosevic, Karadzic was a politician rather than a military man. His power came not through rifles, but nationalist rhetoric. And the link between his words and the bloodshed that followed will take center stage in the coming days. 

It is here where victims and other witnesses will testify to what they heard Karadzic say and the atrocities that they experienced thereafter. In the eyes of lead prosecutor on the case, Californian Alan Tieger, there is more than ample evidence to tie Karadzic’s words to the brutality carried out on the ground. Mr. Tieger has pointed to the charged parliamentary session of October 1991, where Karadzic presented this threat to the non-Serbs in the room: “The road you have taken will lead you straight to hell. And in that hell, the Muslim nation [of Bosnia] may ultimately disappear.” The ethnic cleansing that took hundreds of thousands of lives began less than four months later.

Only by proving this type of link will Tieger and his team earn a conviction. In the view of David Scheffer, a professor of law at Northwestern University and former US ambassador at large for war crimes issues, “Proving, with incriminating statements and instructions, that Karadzic masterminded the assault on Srebrenica will be the critical first step to linking him to the genocide that stole so many lives in the aftermath.” 

Karadzic will try to distance himself from those who carried out the orders on the ground. So far, Karadzic – who has chosen to represent himself – has been impressive in the courtroom. He has insisted that he was not given enough time to prepare his case. After refusing to appear for Tieger’s opening statement of Oct. 27 and Nov. 2, 2009, Karadzic’s insistence paid off. The court, caught between reversing its initial decision not to grant Karadzic more time, and jeopardizing the trial’s legitimacy by proceeding in his absence, delayed the trial until March 1 and assigned “stand-by counsel” to step in if Karadzic refused to appear. 

Although the facts that face Karadzic are formidable, we should expect his defense to be formidable in turn. It will be the prosecution’s job to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Karadzic was responsible for the atrocities that stole the lives of thousands, scarred the lives of thousands more, and scoffed at an international community too slow to respond.

Whether this trial will bring justice could be a question without an answer. After all, what is justice to some may be injustice to others. But this trial will give the victims a chance to tell their story. And in the coming days, the world should listen.

Kyle Richard Olson is an attorney at Baker & McKenzie in Chicago. He worked for the office of the prosecutor at the ICTY in The Hague in 2009.


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