The Trial of Radovan Karadzic: The Accused Takes Up His Own Defense

As the leader of the Bosnian Serbs, Karadzic is accused of genocide, specifically the deaths of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica in 1995. He insists Bosnian Muslim fighters were to blame

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Radovan Karadzic sits in the courtroom on the first day of his defense against war-crimes charges at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia on Oct. 16, 2012, in the Hague

Radovan Karadzic turns to the almost empty viewing gallery in Courtroom 3 and nods a brief smile of acknowledgement to an unfamiliar face. It is two weeks since he opened his defense at the Hague tribunal with a 90-minute statement urging the court to recognize him as a “mild and tolerant” man of peace — and not the war criminal he has been portrayed by prosecutors and the press. He has now begun his bid to prove that Bosnian Muslims shelled and shot at their own people during the siege of Sarajevo from 1992 to 1995.

In three years representing himself at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), the 67-year-old former Bosnian Serb leader has developed the air of an unkempt dinner-party host. In a crumpled shirt unbuttoned at the neck, a multicolored tie under a blue jacket, he tries to put his defense witness, a British ballistics expert, at ease. In the dock, Dr. Derek Allsop, sweats and cracks a nervous joke about the risk of badly directed mortars. Karadzic smiles patiently and politely asks him whether he needs to continue talking trajectories.

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Indicted in 1995 for the genocide at Srebrenica in which 8,000 unarmed Muslim men and boys were murdered, as well as orchestrating the murder of thousands of Bosnian Muslims and Croats during a war that ultimately cost more than 100,000 lives, Karadzic was finally arrested in 2008 in Belgrade disguised as the long-bearded new-age health guru, Dragan David Dabic.

Fatter now, clean-shaven and peering through rimless glasses, the former poet and psychiatrist appears to be growing into his lawyerly role. His legal adviser, Peter Robinson, says his defense has three main strands. “Some of the things he is accused of he blames on the Muslims. Other things, like ethnic cleansing, is the result of civil war. Then with the Srebrenica events, he says that he did not know they were executing the prisoners. He says he was not aware of it.”

The tactic of pushing the blame for war crimes onto Muslims and painting forced deportations as an unfortunate side effect of civil war is evident in the latest in an avalanche of recent correspondence from the Karadzic camp. In a letter via the Bosnian ambassador in the Hague, Karadzic wrote, with typically pronounced civility, that he would like to call a former Bosnian Deputy Prime Minister Hasan Cengic to the dock. “I believe you have valuable information to contribute to my trial. Specifically, I wish to ask you about your instruction to Bosnian Muslims to depart from Trebinje to make it look like Bosnian Serbs were conducting ethnic cleansing,” he wrote. “This is important to my defense because such tactics of blaming Serbs for acts of the Muslims have spilled over from the war to the courtroom. I am now being charged with crimes that the Bosnian Muslims themselves committed in order to blame the Serbs and obtain international intervention. I need your testimony to clarify these matters to my Trial Chamber.”

Allsop has been called to help prove that the mortar that killed 68 in the February 1994 Markale Market massacre in Sarajevo was not fired from Bosnian Serb positions. Yet Bosnian Serb guilt has already been proved in the trial of a Karadzic subordinate, Stanislav Galic, who will also be called to testify on behalf of his former leader. The strategy of total denial, as well as Karadzic’s insistence that he represents himself, means he will be defending his case until 2014, at least.

It also means the former Bosnian Serb leader delays, for as long as possible, the conviction that Robinson says even Karadzic knows is inevitable and his probably lifetime jail sentence.

As one of 35 men — from all sides of Europe’s last war — still on trial at the Hague, he is being held on one of three wings in the adjoining detention unit. Some Balkan critics of the ICTY describe it as the Hague Hilton. Like Ratko Mladic, arrested in 2010 and also indicted for the 1995 Srebrenica genocide, Karadzic looks visibly healthier since arriving. The accused men have good health care; each wing houses around a dozen of the accused, has a kitchen where they can cook together. They can also order food from a local Balkan shop; and as Nerma Jelacic, the ICTY chief spokesperson points out, there have even been interwing football competitions.

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At an average age of 63, violent disputes in the unit are rare, and there has never been a fight over ethnicity. Muslim and Christian festivals are even celebrated together. “For special occasions like ‘Id or Easter or Christmas, they can order roast meat on a spit or baklava,” says Jelacic.

The cuddly image of Karadzic as an aging man of peace is cultivated by his legal adviser. During four years working with Karadzic, Robinson says the pair have grown close. “He is very easy to get along with,” says the mild-mannered Bostonian. “He has very good personal skills, he is very funny, very intelligent. He’d prefer to be enjoying poetry and literature than be a lawyer. He isn’t physical or violent at all. He’s really very mild. The idea of someone being beaten or shot is horrible to him. He was a psychiatrist and a writer. He was forced to become a commander in chief.”

Watching the unfailingly polite Karadzic in the civilized surroundings of the ICTY, where delayed interpretation between English and Serbian takes the sting out of cross-examination, the image of the urbane former poet and psychiatrist as a reluctant lawyer and warrior appears credible.

But Mirko Klarin, a Serbian journalist who has followed Karadzic for more than 20 years says Karadzic’s manner is unchanged since he practiced psychiatry at a Sarajevo hospital in his 30s. “He was an average poet, an average psychiatrist and he is a hopeless lawyer,” he says.

Throughout the first three years of this trial, Karadzic had promised a point by point destruction of the prosecution’s case. Now, with his defense just two weeks old, he has been reduced to reading agreed statements to witnesses and asking them to confirm the information.

The method is sometimes applied here to speed up lengthy cases, but Klarin says it is a device to prevent the bungling amateur attorney from asking questions that might damage his own case.

Frederick Swinnen, special adviser to the prosecutor, says that in the past, defense witnesses have often proved more useful to the prosecution than they were to the accused. Klarin says this will certainly be the case with Karadzic. “He has called 600 witnesses. The prosecution will be rubbing their hands together,” he says.

Take this example. Former U.N. peacekeeper Major Sergey Moroz was called to testify. Karadzic read a written statement in which Moroz recalls a 1994 conversation with a Russian U.N. military observer, Nicolaj Rumyantsev. The now dead Russian had told Moroz that the Markale Market mortar could not have come from a Bosnian Serb position. In the nine years since he first gave evidence in the Galic trial, however, the prosecution has found the report signed by the dead Russian that says exactly the opposite.

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