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Crunch time for Karadzic

Will the former Bosnian Serb leader be forced to address the real essence of the charges against him or will he turn the trial into a political forum?

Last modified: 1 Mar 2010 10:51

This will be an important week in The Hague, as the UN's International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia struggles to finally get some momentum going in the trial of the former Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic.

One-and-a-half years have passed since that dramatic announcement in Belgrade that Karadzic, after more than a decade as a fugitive from justice, had finally been caught.

He had been disguised with a false identity, and practicing traditional medicine in the Serbian capital.

Since then, Karadzic has made only fleeting appearances in court. He boycotted the opening of his trial last October, saying he needed more time to prepare his own defence against 11 charges of genocide, crimes against humanity, and breaches of the Geneva convention during the Bosnian war.

The judges at the Tribunal then appointed the London-based barrister Richard Harvey as Karadzic's lawyer, and rejected Karadzic's request for a further postponement until June.

Avoiding accusations

So, experienced trial observers say, this is crunch time. Will Karadzic get away with delaying tactics, or will he and his team be forced to address the real essence of the charges, all of which he denies?

Make no mistake, there is a ghost looming over this trial; that of the former Serbian leader, Slobodan Milosevic.

Milosevic died in 2006, before the end of his trial. But there was already a widespread perception that he had succeeded in turning it into a political forum, where he was able to rail against Western interference in the former Yugoslavia, and avoid the substance of the accusations against him.

Karadzic will probably try to do the same. He says he will attend, and make a statement at the opening on March 1.

I expect a wide-ranging analysis of how Bosnia slid into war, condemnation of the Western powers that he believes connived in the dismemberment of Yugoslavia, and a harsh rebuttal of the legality of The Hague Tribunal, (a "court of Nato" he calls it).

He may well enjoy the grand stage that the court offers him, and will probably ignore the advice of judges to concentrate on the specifics of the indictment. After that, it is not clear how the trial will proceed.

Karadzic, and his own team of advisers, might not co-operate with Harvey in conducting the defence. If Karadzic continues to boycott many of the proceedings, he will probably lose the right to defend himself, and Harvey will take over.

High stakes

How will all this play back home? Depressingly, in the seven (if you count Kosovo) countries that now comprise what was Yugoslavia, there is little consensus about the Tribunal in The Hague.

Serbs are convinced that it is biased against them, and both in the Serbian parts of Bosnia, and in Serbia itself, many still speak out in defence of Karadzic and his military commander, Ratko Mladic (who, of course, is still on the run).

But Croats, Bosniak Moslems and Kosovan Albanians have all complained bitterly about The Hague Tribunal when it has arrested or charged one of their own prominent leaders or military commanders.

That is why the stakes are so high in the Karadzic trial.

It is too much to hope this process can bring reconciliation and understanding to all the people of the former Yugoslavia; but if some, of different ethnic backgrounds, believe justice has been done, then that would be an important step forward.