The trial of Radovan Karadzic starts on Monday – one of the most significant war crimes cases to emerge from Europe’s bloodiest conflict since World War II. The Bosnian Serb leader is boycotting the opening in a defiant gesture against what he considers a rush to justice by the UN court prosecuting him.
His refusal to show up at the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal is a blow to survivors who hold him responsible for tens of thousands of deaths during the brutal 1992-95 Bosnian war.
Even so, Munira Subasic, who lost a husband and a son when Bosnian Serb forces murdered 8,000 Muslim men in the UN-protected Srebrenica enclave in July 2005, said the case comes as a relief after the trial of Karadzic’s former political mentor Slobodan Milosevic collapsed without a verdict after he died in 2006.
“We want to remind the Europeans that for 14 years we are waiting for justice. The Milosevic trial failed and now is the time for this justice to come,” she said.
Observers agree that the 64-year-old’s absence from Courtroom One at the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal should not overshadow the case’s significance.
“The Karadzic trial is really the trial that the Yugoslavia tribunal was designed for,” said Michael Scharf, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.
Scharf said that evidence presented at the Milosevic genocide trial made it, “absolutely clear that Karadzic was a much greater monster and much more responsible for the atrocities than Milosevic ever was.”
Karadzic’s trial also is seen as a chance for the tribunal to make amends for Milosevic’s ill-fated trial, which dragged on for four years before his fatal heart attack.
Karadzic, 64, also is charged with genocide – one count for the 1995 murder of 8,000 Muslim men in Srebrenica and a second for the Bosnian Serb campaign of ethnic cleansing against the country’s Muslim and Croat populations. He faces nine other charges including extermination, persecution and taking peacekeepers hostage.
Karadzic has repeatedly refused to enter pleas, but insists he is innocent. He faces a maximum life sentence if convicted at his trial, which is expected to last at least two years.
He is boycotting Monday’s hearing to protest his lack of time to prepare for the trial, saying he needs months more to get ready.
Dozens of survivors of Bosnian Serb atrocities are travelling to the court for Monday’s opening, at which prosecutors are scheduled to begin outlining their case and how they intend to prove it to a three-judge panel.
Seeing Karadzic finally face justice is enormously significant to victims who still cannot put to rest their memories of the horrors, said the tribunal’s chief prosecutor, Belgian Serge Brammertz.
He recalled meeting a woman who lost 21 family members in the war and still has not found all their bodies.
“If you see what those crimes have done to the people in the region, you easily understand the importance of bringing the alleged perpetrators to justice,” he said.
The war left more than 100,000 dead, most of them victims of Bosnian Serb attacks.
Karadzic, who avoided capture for 13 years, is the most senior Bosnian to go on trial at the tribunal.
Survivors revile him as the man whose political dream of creating an ethnically pure “Greater Serbia” triggered the Srebrenica massacre – Europe’s worst bloodbath since World War II – and the notorious campaign of sniping and shelling that turned Bosnia’s picturesque capital Sarajevo into a killing field.
For Brammertz, the trial is a chance to establish for the historical record Karadzic’s role.
“It is very important that facts are presented in court and that there can be no denial about the reality of the crimes committed during this war,” he said.
Karadzic worked hard to avoid facing justice. He says he cut a deal with US peace envoy Richard Holbrooke in 1996 in which he agreed to drop out of public life in return for immunity from prosecution. Holbrooke denies making such a deal and tribunal judges say it would not be binding on them.
His whereabouts were unknown for years until his arrest last year when he was posing as New Age healer Dr. Dragan Dabic, disguised behind thick glasses, a bushy beard and straggly grey hair.
Prosecutors wanted to try Karadzic together with his wartime military chief, Gen. Ratko Mladic, but Mladic remains on the run, one of only two suspects still sought by the court. The other is a former leader of rebel Serbs in Croatia, Goran Hadzic. ( By Mike Corder, AAP)