Next week’s verdict in the war crimes trial of former Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic will be a judicial landmark but cannot heal the lasting divisions of wartime.
The UN war crimes court’s verdict, which will be delivered on March 24, will be historic.
Seventy-year-old Karadzic will be the highest-ranking political leader accused before the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia to hear the verdict on his alleged crimes delivered in court.
In 1995, the last year of the war, Karadzic was charged with genocide and other crimes in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but after the conflict ended, he went on the run.
His assets were frozen and the NATO-led Stabilisation Force in Bosnia, SFOR, searched for him for several years, ordering periodic raids, but Karadzic remained hidden. The US offered up to $5 million as a reward to anyone with information leading to an arrest, but still he could not be found.
As hopes that he could be apprehended began to fade, Karadzic was arrested in 2008 in Belgrade, where he was hiding in plain sight, posing as a spiritual healer. He had a longer beard and hair and was wearing less formal clothes, but it was definitely him – Europe’s most wanted man, working openly in the Serbian capital under the assumed name Dragan Dabic.
In his first court appearance in The Hague, Karadzic was defiant: “I’ve been in worse places,” he told the judge.
He announced that he would prove that he had a deal with US diplomat Richard Holbrooke that he would not be prosecuted – but despite the headline-grabbing statement, Karadzic failed to produce the evidence during his marathon trial.
More than 500 witnesses – victims, UN peacekeeping troops, international and domestic experts – testified about genocide and other wartime crimes in Bosnia and Herzegovina or denied that they happened or that Karadzic was responsible for them.
War criminals Stanislav Galic, Milan Martic, Dragomir Milosevic and others testified in Karadzic’s defence, denying the crimes they were convicted of at their own trials.
Karadzic himself insisted that the Bosnian Serb leadership was made up of experts, writers, doctors, lawyers and professors. “God forbid that we had a different leadership, who knows what the war would have looked like?” he said.
In his final statement before the court in October 2014, he admitted that crimes were committed during what he called the “awful” war, but insisted that he never ordered them.
“I am of a clear conscience and a heavy heart, because the war wasn’t what I wanted,” he said.
Karadzic (right) with former Bosnian Serb parliament speaker Momcilo Krajisnik during wartime.
A courtroom circus?
Some witness testimonies brought back memories of wartime, when Karadzic was in power in Bosnia’s Serb-led entity, Republika Srpska. Former Bosnian Serb justice minister Momcilo Mandic addressed him as ‘Mr. President’, while the defendant answered by calling Mandic ‘Mr. Minister’.
Victims of Bosnian Serb forces’ military campaigns described the trial as a ‘circus’ that glorified Karadzic by allowing his supporters to sing his praises.
The testimony of current Bosnian Serb president Milorad Dodik was watched keenly to see how far the Republika Srpska leadership had moved on from Karadzic’s ideals since the end of the war.
But Dodik, a defence witness, insisted that Karadzic never took part in war crimes, arguing that the defendant wanted a peaceful resolution to the conflict and for all war crimes to be prosecuted.
Asked whether he accepted that massive crimes were committed against Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) and Croat civilians during the war, Dodik replied: “It was a civil war. Serbs, Muslims and Croats all had organised military formations. All three sides violated the law of war.”
A key issue in the Karadzic verdict promises to be the decision on whether genocide was committed by Bosnian Serb forces under his control in the municipalities of Kljuc, Sanski Most, Prijedor, Vlasenica, Foca, Zvornik and Bratunac in 1992, as well as against Bosniaks from Srebrenica in 1995.
This is the most unpredictable part of the verdict, as there have already been final verdicts handed down by the UN court about the other crimes with which Karadzic is charged – the Srebrenica genocide, wartime crimes in Sarajevo and the persecution of Bosniaks and Croats by Bosnian Serb forces in many municipalities across the country.
In its attempts to prove that that Karadzic was guilty of waging a campaign of terror against the population of besieged Sarajevo from 1992 to 1995, the Hague prosecution called more than 30 former UN peacekeepers to testify.
On the other side, Karadzic’s defence also called to the stand former members of international forces in its own attempts to prove that the mortar shells that killed dozens of people at the Sarajevo’s Markale market weren’t fired from Bosnian Serb positions.
Karadzic initially announced that he would take the stand and “disprove all the lies of the Tribunal”, but in the end he backed out, claiming that his witnesses had said everything that needed to be heard to confirm his innocence.
The UN Detention Unit in Scheveningen, The Hague, where Karadzic has been held. Photo: BIRN.
Bad food and ‘false remorse’
The former Bosnian Serb leader kept himself busy throughout the trial, filing motion upon motion. He asked the United Nations to look into the number of malign diseases in the Scheveningen detention centre, where Hague Tribunal defendants are held, suggesting that there was something sinister about the number of illnesses among the accused.
He also complained about the food, describing it as “frozen and reheated in a microwave oven”. He said it was bad quality, and added it “tasted funny for people from the Balkans”.
Karadzic also described the detention centre as more of a “retirement home” which housed “intellectuals”, but said it wasn’t the right environment for “fragile men in the final age of their lives”.
In its closing arguments, the Hague prosecution asked for a life sentence for the 70-year-old to ensure justice for the victims of Srebrenica, Sarajevo and all the other places where victims were persecuted during the Bosnian confict.
According to the prosecutors, the terrorising of the capital, the mass executions, the use of UN officials as hostages and the brutality towards victims all had something in common – the role of Radovan Karadzic.
His false remorse, the prosecutors said, was salt in the wounds of all the victims now living without their loved ones and trying to deal with the horrors of the past.
The protracted saga of Karadzic’s flight from justice, his eventual arrest and his lengthy trial has left many victims with feelings of deep disappointment.
They were exasperated that he evaded capture for so long and outraged by the glowing testimonies that his admirers gave him in the courtroom while simultaneously denying the crimes from which they suffered.
Most are unsure whether the tribunal will find the courage to rule that genocide was committed in 1992, and are already expecting to be disappointed again.
Bosnian Serb politicians and victims’ groups meanwhile have long been disappointed by what they see as unfair, politically-motivated and anti-Serb prosecutions by the Hague court. Whatever the ruling in the Karadzic case, this view is unlikely to change.
So while the verdict that will be announced by South Korean judge O-Gon Kwon in The Hague next week will certainly be historic, it is almost certain to be met by yet more disappointment.