Karadzic Case Offers Court a Chance to Repair Its Image

Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic faces genocide charges at the U.N. war crimes tribunal after his arrest in Belgrade in July 2008.
By Kevin Sullivan and Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 24, 2008

THE HAGUE, July 23 -- The arrest of Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader accused of genocide and crimes against humanity, offers a major test -- and, some say, a shot at redemption -- for the huge and costly international court that will try him.

Its last big-name defendant, former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, at times seemed to be in control of his own trial, turning normally somber proceedings into a freewheeling forum in order to air his many political grievances. It was a public relations disaster for the U.N.-affiliated International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which spends more than $300 million a year.

An announcement from Karadzic's lawyer Wednesday suggested that its new defendant is hoping to do the same. Karadzic will represent himself before the Hague-based tribunal, giving him the same legal standing that Milosevic used to inject politics at every turn.

"This is the critical point for the tribunal," said Paul Williams, a former U.S. State Department lawyer who helped establish the organization. "The Karadzic case gives the tribunal an opportunity to reclaim its mandate."

Created by a 1993 U.N. resolution, the tribunal has indicted 161 people in connection with the Balkans wars of the 1990s, the worst violence in Europe since World War II. The court has a $310 million annual budget and more than 1,100 employees from 82 countries. Critics have accused it of being too expensive and ineffective, bringing too few people to justice in view of its vast resources; Milosevic gave it a reputation for unruliness and indecision that lingers today.

Olga Kavran, a spokeswoman for the tribunal's lead prosecutor, Serge Brammertz, disputes that image. "The level of work done here has not decreased -- quite the contrary," she said in an interview. "But the perception is that the only case we ever handled was Milosevic."

Several analysts said the tribunal now has a chance to learn from the mistakes of the Milosevic trial, which ended without a verdict four years after it began when the defendant died in his cell.

"The strategic mistake of the Milosevic case was the ambition of the tribunal to seek historical truth and over-explain everything at trial," said Dejan Anastasijevic, a Belgrade-based journalist who has covered the tribunal extensively and who testified against Milosevic at the trial. "They let Milosevic use it as a political forum," he said. "With Karadzic they need to focus on the crimes, not the politics. They need to be . . . lean and mean."

Many analysts expect the judges to be more forceful in reining in political speeches and insisting that prosecution and defense alike stick to the specific facts in dispute.

"This is the tribunal's 15th birthday, and for international institutions, 15 years old is still very young," said Michael Scharf, a war crimes court specialist who teaches law at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. "The institution is maturing nicely."

The tribunal has convicted 56 people and acquitted 10 others. Kavran said 27 people are currently on trial, eight are in the appeal process, and 10 others are in various stages of the pretrial or pre-appeal process.

Two who have been indicted remain at large, including Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb military leader.

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