Unusual Yugoslav war-crimes tribunal case: Was it contempt?

Florence Hartmann is on trial for her book that describes a court deal with Belgrade.

Given the rogue's gallery of paramilitary thugs and genocide-ordering generals who have populated the lists of the accused at the Yugoslav war-crimes tribunal at The Hague, it is unusual to find a former court spokeswoman on trial this week.

Florence Hartmann, who covered the Balkan war for Le Monde and was chief prosecutor Carla del Ponte's media aide, is charged with contempt for her 2007 book describing a court deal with Belgrade to keep evidence secret.

Legally, the case falls into a gray area. It pits questions of free-speech practices against court rules, forbidding disclosure, that ensure the court is a reliable body, scholars say.

But the larger underlying issue revolves around history: whether the four-year Bosnian war is formally defined as a genocide orchestrated by Serbia, court watchers say.

Ms. Hartmann's book contains pages on a confidential tribunal deal with Belgrade over a trove of high-value evidence from the Supreme Defense Council (SDC) of the Serbian Army. Boxes of minutes and records were turned over by the relatively friendly Zoran Djindjic government after Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic was toppled and sent to The Hague in 2000.

The boxes showed a dense interrelationship between the Serbian Army and the Bosnian Serb militias, including Gen. Ratko Mladic, in the Srebrenica massacre. Such relations were long denied by Belgrade. The SDC material gave Ms. Del Ponte enough confidence to charge Mr. Milosevic with genocide.

However, Belgrade handed over the boxes under a deal known as Rule 54bis – that they not be made public or used outside the tribunal for reasons of state security.

"That was not your average deal" between Belgrade and the tribunal, offers one former court legal consultant. "At the core of the charges Hartmann is facing is a struggle over the interpretation of the SDC material, and how it was handled."

Hartmann did not disclose the contents of the boxes. The case is over the rules of the court. Hartmann detailed how the court agreed that the SDC material would be kept secret, so that it could not be used in the International Court of Justice (also at The Hague), which was hearing a case that Bosnia brought against Serbia for genocide.

In 2007, after the period Hartmann describes, the ICJ did not find Serbia guilty of genocide; instead, it found it guilty of failing to prevent it.

The court indictment lists Hartmann's book, "Paix et Châtiment" (Peace and Punishment), and an article for the Bosnian Institute in English, titled "Vital Genocide Documents Concealed," and states that "Florence Hartmann knew that the information was confidential [and] by her disclosure she was revealing confidential information."

Prosecutor Bruce MacFarlane of Canada stated in the trial opening on June 15 that Hartmann's "own words ... were a statement of defiance."

French legal expert Louis Joinet, Hartmann's first defense witness, said she "spoke only of the judges' motives, not of the contents of the confidential documents." The defense says Hartmann's descriptions were already in the public domain.

Quintin Hoare, of the Bosnian Institute in London, told the Monitor that "the court has been trying to keep the cork in the bottle. It's an embarrassment to have kept these documents from the public, so they shoot the messenger."

Joel Hubrecht, of the French Institute of Advanced Studies on Justice, says that with the tribunal set to close in two years, the Hartmann trial is a distraction that plays into the hands of the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, apprehended in Belgrade last summer.

If convicted, Hartmann faces seven years or up to a $140,000 fine.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.