Karadzic war crimes trial off to slow start

Boycott: Radovan Karadzic says he needs more time to prepare his own defence Keystone

The trial of Radovan Karadzic has been delayed at the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague (ICTY) after the Bosnian-Serb leader boycotted the proceedings.

This content was published on October 26, 2009 minutes

Judge O-Gon Kwon said the trial would recommence on Tuesday. Karadzic faces charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role during the Bosnian war of the 1990s.

Karadzic, who is representing himself, had been trying to delay the start of the trial at the United Nations' court. He said he needs months more to prepare. Authorities said they would consider appointing a lawyer for Karadzic if he continued to boycott the proceedings.

The trial presents a big challenge for the international justice authorities and for the countries of the former Yugoslavia. It comes after the failure of the proceedings against the former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic. That trial dragged on for four years before Milosevic died in his prison cell in 2006 of a heart attack before the hearing ended.

"After the death of Slobodan Milosevic, the question was raised whether the ICTY would one day be able to try the people carrying the responsibility for the crimes at the highest political level," said Alain Werner, a Swiss lawyer who worked as a prosecutor during the former Liberian president Charles Taylor's ongoing trial.

"This opportunity exists today and it seems that the prosecutors have decided to concentrate the trial on the main facts."

The prosecution has put together more than one million pages of documents and is expected to call upon 409 witnesses. The hearing is expected to last more than two years.

Heading the team is Alan Tieger, an American, who will be aiming to show that Karadzic "participated in a [joint] criminal enterprise" with, notably, Milosevic, "to permanently remove Bosnian Muslims and Croats from the territories claimed by the Serbians".


For this aim, Karadzic is charged with planning and orchestrating the massacre of more than 7,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica, as well as the 44 months of the Siege of Sarajevo and the ethnic cleansing of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

"Some of the prosecutors in charge of this case, such as Tieger, are very competent and have experience gained from several trials at the same court," said Werner.

"This could contribute to an efficient prosecution, which should allow us to better understand what happened at a high political level."

For his part, the former Bosnian Serb leader – who was caught in Serbia after 13 years on the run in July 2008 during which he had disguised himself as a doctor of alternative medicine – has developed a two-pronged strategy.

Alleged deal

First, Karadzic claims he was betrayed by the US negotiator in the Balkans, Richard Holbrooke, whom he says promised him immunity in 1996 in exchange for his withdrawal from political life in Bosnia-Herzegovina. In mid October, he asked the UN Security Council to uphold this claim. Holbrooke has always denied any deal.

The second part concerns the prosecution's charges. Karadzic maintains that he was undertaking "resistance" in Bosnia. In numerous petitions, he has said that he was fighting "against the creation of an Islamic state in the centre of Europe".

His defence team, made up of around 20 lawyers and international law professors and led by the American lawyer Peter Robinson, have asked 27 countries to open up their secret archives. This includes the US, Britain, Iran, Pakistan, Egypt, Bosnia and Croatia.

Karadzic claims UN soldiers organised arms trafficking to Bosnia-Herzegovina which would have violated the UN embargo.

Victims' voice
Around 100,000 people died and thousands disappeared during the Bosnian war.

"Even if the victims are not represented by the lawyers in the trial, as it is the case for the court trying the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, you can be sure that they will be following the trial closely," Werner said.

"One cannot generalise, but my experience of international jurisdictions tells me that the fact that a court has judged their [the victims] testimonies of suffering as authentic and trustworthy is often of great importance."

The verdict will be delivered by three judges – a south Korean, a Briton and a Trinidadian – but is not expected before 2013. Karadzic could expect a life sentence.

Stéphanie Maupas in The Hague, (Adapted from French by Isobel Leybold-Johnson)

War crimes suspect

Radovan Karadzic was indicted by the ICTY in July 1995. In July 1996, the former Bosnian Serb leader withdrew from political life in Bosnia-Herzegovina and disappeared. He was arrested at the end of July 2008 in Belgrade. He was then transferred to Scheveningen prison, near The Hague in the Netherlands.

The ICTY – since its creation by the UN Security Council in May 1993, the court has issued 161 indictments. Those indicted include heads of state, prime ministers, army chiefs-of-staff, interior ministers and many other high- and mid-level political, military and police leaders from various parties to the Yugoslav conflicts. More than 60 individuals have been convicted and currently more than 40 people are in different stages of proceedings before the Tribunal. Two are still on the run, including Bosnian Serb military chief Ratko Mladic.

Srebrenica - Bosnian Serb forces killed more than 7,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in and around the town of Srebrenica in July 1995. It was the military culmination of Karadzic's ethnic cleaning policy.

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