Will Karadzic's genocide trial redeem The Hague?

The Bosnian Serb leader's arrival at the UN war crimes court offers it a second chance after the inconclusive trial of Slobodan Milosevic.

Ermindo Armino/AP
Extradited to The Hague: Bosnian Serb ex-leader Radovan Karadzic was whisked out of Belgrade at 3:45 a.m. Wednesday and taken to a Hague prison.

After evading arrest for 12 years, the self-styled Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic will appear at the Hague tribunal Thursday. There, he will say whether he is innocent or guilty of masterminding a war in Europe that set ethnic Slavs against each other, creating death squads, 1.8 million refugees, and hate and divisions in the former Yugoslavia that have not yet ended.

The prosecution at the first international war crimes court since Nuremberg hopes that the trial will fully clarify what happened in the worst theater of the 1990s Balkan wars – Bosnia – and that it will lead to a clear conviction of genocide.

This time, the tribunal is determined not to be stymied by a wily defendant. After a torturous and inconclusive four-year trial of Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic, marked by delays, obstinacy, grandstanding political harangues, and finally Mr. Milosevic's 2006 death in a Hague cell – the Karadzic trial is seen as a second chance for the tribunal to convict a leader at the apex of responsibility.

"All that has gone before is a dress rehearsal," says Mirko Klarin, a Serb documentary producer who has covered the tribunal daily since its inception in 1993. "The evidence presented at the tribunal for genocide in [six Bosnian cities] is available. In Karadzic, they have the main link between Milosevic and Serbs in Bosnia."

For the right-wing Serbs who support Karadzic, the trial will be about defending Serb honor, and trying to change the story of Bosnia they say has been promoted by a world media biased against them. Karadzic has said he wants to conduct his own trial, as Milosevic did, but he has a legal team in Belgrade – the "International Committee for the Truth about Radovan Karadzic" – backing him up.

Seeing Karadzic at the Hague is a moment of great joy in many justice circles. Some in the decade-old movement for war tribunals who desire new standards for thinking about the rule of law (which began with the Yugoslav tribunal) say the Karadzic delivery to the Hague offers some real-world lessons.

"Karadzic's trial will change the world's perception of the role of justice in the peace process," argues Paul Williams, legal adviser to the Bosnian government during the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords. "It will reveal that it is not possible to forever negotiate with those who are committing genocide."

For Serge Brammertz, new chief prosecutor of the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), the challenge will be to work efficiently in what he told reporters Wednesday is "a complex legal trial ... in a short period ... with many questions about facts behind the crimes."

Mr. Brammertz, a Belgian who replaced the tough-minded and flamboyant Swiss prosecutor Carla del Ponte in January, praised the Serbian government of Boris Tadic in last week's capture of Karadzic, who had been posing incognito in Belgrade before his handover to The Hague early Wednesday.

Brammertz refused to say when the trial might start, or how long his review of the Karadzic indictment, last amended in 2000, would take, but said the tribunal has new evidence from subsequent trials that it is "up to the judges to permit." He echoed the European Union's call to turn over Gen. Ratko Mladic, Karadzic's main military commander, with whom Karadzic shares 11 charges of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

Karadzic is considered special for a number of reasons. He formed and headed a political party that made Serbian superiority its main ideology. He will be tried as the political architect of an "ethnic cleansing" project to rid vast areas of Bosnia of non-Serbs.

Unlike military indictees on trial for giving orders or participating in killing, Karadzic will face evidence that he created the atmosphere for killing, including the crucial role of propaganda, and that he was key to spreading the intent to conduct genocide. As one legal source put it, he "dreamed up the software for the killing." In cases of genocide, the prosecutor must prove intent. In Karadzic's case, there are countless TV clips, recordings, interviews, and other direct statements made from his headquarters in Pale.

While Karadzic's Belgrade lawyer has said that he plans to defend himself at The Hague, Brammertz, on Wednesday said he planned to lodge an objection to "two presentations" – a reference to a painful lesson from the Milosevic trial.

Milosevic 'mesmerized' tribunal

Milosevic prevailed upon the Hague court to conduct his own defense. Yet tribunal judges felt he needed a lawyer to help him prepare the complex case. Often, Milosevic would offer a political diatribe perhaps intended for Belgrade TV, but legally useless in a trial.

One of the three panel judges would then turn to the Tribunal-appointed lawyer for clarification, resulting in long hours in which the court essentially heard "two presentations." Milosevic never acknowledged the backup lawyer; the court suffered serious criticism for being manipulated by Milosevic, or as one Balkan reporter put it, "mesmerized by him."

"The tribunal is a forum for justice, not a soap box for politics," says Mr. Williams. "It is fine if Karadzic wants to defend himself. But he has to make it a legal defense. The court will learn from the Milosevic experience, and as in the Saddam Hussein trial, the judges will probably be tough this time."

When Milosevic died, lawyers at the tribunal seemed to be dealt a public relations blow, and there's been a sense among judges and prosecutors that the tribunal and indeed the war often seems a distant sideshow to current world events. Still, the body has racked up a serious legal track record since it began in 1993, experts say. Only two of 161 indicted remain at large. Some 56 accused have been convicted. The 27 trials now under way include that of Vojislav Seselj, head of the Serbian Radical Party, whose members brought street protests and police clashes in Belgrade this week, hours before Karadzic's extradition. In 2001, Bosnian Serb army chief, Radislav Krstic, was convicted of genocide by the tribunal, a charged later lessened to aiding and abetting genocide.

The tribunal is considered the inspiration for the Rwanda and Sierra Leone war crimes trials, and as bringing about the International Criminal Court, which just indicted Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir for genocide in Darfur.

Karadzic 'mentally very strong'

Karadzic's cell is located in a suburban prison described by former detainees as small but pleasant, with accused war criminals from Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo, and Croatia often chatting together and fixing meals. One Hague insider said it was doubtful Karadzic will accept Milosevic's cell, "since he's a bit superstitious."

Svetozar Vujacic, Karadzic's Belgrade lawyer described his client in recent days as "morally and mentally very strong.... He told me he was a great optimist that truth and justice will win, and that he trusts in God."

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