• Ex-Bosnian Serb leader to face 11 war crimes charges
• Boycott threat could delay complex trial for months
Radovan Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb leader seen as the mastermind of the worst ethnic pogroms in Europe in the post-war era, goes on trial today in what may be the last big case of the UN’s Yugoslav war crimes tribunal.
Arrested last year in Serbia under a false identity after 13 years as a fugitive, Karadzic has been indicted on two counts of genocide, the gravest charges possible, for allegedly overseeing the mass murder and deportation of tens of thousands of Bosnia’s Muslims in the north-west of the country in 1992 and at Srebrenica in the north-east in 1995.
He faces a further nine charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity for the 44-month Serbian siege of the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, in 1992-95, and for taking more than 200 UN peacekeepers hostage in 1995 as an insurance policy against Nato bombing raids.
Fifteen years into the operations of the tribunal, the Karadzic trial is shaping up to be its most important and one of its last. But it looks likely to get off to a frustrating and demoralising start with the accused boycotting the proceedings in The Hague. The presiding judge, O-Gon Kwon of South Korea, faces a dilemma over how to deal with a recalcitrant defendant who has long argued he is immune from prosecution because of a deal allegedly struck with Richard Holbrooke, then the US Balkan envoy, after the war ended in 1995. Karadzic also insists on conducting his own defence and declared last week he would not be in court because he needs more time to prepare.
The same tactics were or are being used by the late Serbian leader, Slobodan Milosevic, and Serbian warlord, Vojislav Seselj, to grandstand, politicise the trials, and drag them out interminably.
The judges have been criticised by lawyers, victims’ associations, and human rights activists for allowing the war crimes suspects to set the agenda and manipulate the court. Despite Karadzic’s boycott threat last week from his cell on the North Sea outside The Hague, the court stressed that the trial would open today, after previous postponements.
The prosecution is scheduled to make two days of opening statements before Karadzic mounts his defence next week. But it is not clear what will happen if Karadzic stays away this morning. Legal experts predict further delays are inevitable, perhaps of several months.
Following the boycott threat last week, the judge contacted Karadzic on Friday to “encourage” him to appear in court. That suggested a veiled warning was delivered, with the judge reserving the right to impose defence lawyers.
Karadzic described his long-awaited trial as “the biggest, most complex, important, and sensitive case ever before this tribunal” and argued he needed a lot more time to plough through around one million pages of prosecution evidence.
“My defence is not ready,” he said. “I will not appear before you on that date [today].” This threat was in the English version of a 10-page letter from Karadzic. The original in Serbian, however, did not contain the explicit stay-away pledge.
Karadzic was the political leader of the Bosnian Serbs during the 1992-95 war which left 100,000 dead, mainly Bosnian Muslims, and bequeathed a country partitioned between a Serbian half and a Muslim-Croat half. The fundamental charge is that Karadzic orchestrated a systematic campaign of murder and terror to rid half of Bosnia of all non-Serbs.
The “objective was the permanent removal of Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats from Bosnian Serb-claimed territory through crimes charged in this indictment,” the prosecution alleges, “by means which included … genocide, persecution, extermination, murder, deportation, and inhumane acts.”