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Radovan Karadzic Goes to Court

Former Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic is scheduled to appear on Friday [8/29/08] before the United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague. It will be his second appearance before the court since his arrest last month.

The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, or ICTY, was established by the United Nations Security Council in 1993 to bring to justice those accused of atrocities stemming from the Bosnia conflict in the early 1990s [1992-95]. It was the first time since leaders of Nazi Germany were prosecuted at the Nuremberg trials [1945-1949] that a war crimes tribunal was set up.

Harvard University law professor Alex Whiting, a former prosecutor at the ICTY, says several factors came together in the mid-1990s that made the establishment of the court possible. "First of all, the crimes in the war in the former Yugoslavia occurred in Europe's backyard, which had a significant effect on European countries and on the United States," says Whiting. "The second thing is that photos from the war were strikingly reminiscent of photos from internment camps in World War II. So during the summer of 1992, there were photos of camps, internment camps, detention camps in Bosnia with prisoners, emaciated prisoners, that made people think again about war crimes that had been committed in World War II and had been prosecuted at Nuremberg."

Paul Williams, a former legal adviser to the Bosnian government, says the tribunal was created in such a way that it truly represents the international community. "There have been Ugandan, Kenyan, British, Dutch -- any number of judges from different nationalities and different countries. The prosecutors are from all over the globe. There has been a South African, a Canadian, a Swiss prosecutor," says Williams. "So this tribunal is a genuine United Nations tribunal and does represent all of the countries or nearly all of the countries that are member states of the U.N."

The Wheels of Justice

A panel of three judges hears each case and the verdict is reached by a majority vote. If a verdict is appealed, it is heard by a different panel of three judges. And because this is a U.N. tribunal, there is no death penalty. The maximum sentence is life imprisonment.

Since its inception, the court has indicted more than 160 people. It has handed down more than 50 convictions and 10 acquittals. More than 30 people are currently in custody in The Hague. The highest profile case to date was that of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, who was accused of genocide. Milosevic died in detention in 2006, just months before a verdict was due.

Experts such as Alex Whiting say Milosevic's death was a shock for the court. "There's no doubt that the death of Milosevic before the verdict was a tremendous blow because it was the signature case of the tribunal. He was, obviously, the most important person indicted by the tribunal and he was the face of the war. And it would have been an incredible achievement for the court to have completed that case," says Whiting.

Making a Case Against Karadzic

Now the court prepares to try Radovan Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb political leader. Following his arrest last month in Belgrade and his extradition to The Hague, the tribunal's chief prosecutor Serge Brammertz told reporters that Karadzic is charged with crimes against humanity and genocide.

"He is charged with the ethnic cleansing of non-Serbs from large areas of Bosnia-Herzegovina. He is charged with a campaign of shelling and sniping to terrorize the civilian population in Sarajevo. He is charged with genocide committed in Srebrenica in July 1995 when close to eight thousand Muslim Bosnian men and boys were killed," said Brammertz.

Legal scholar Paul Williams of American University says it is fairly straightforward to prove a crime against humanity. "There are a number of crimes -- such as torture, murder, rape, destruction of property -- which, if they are done in a widespread and systematic manner, constitute a crime against humanity. You do not need to prove intent. You simply need to prove these acts occurred, they were widespread, they were systematic and these individuals were responsible for them or carried them out," says Williams. "In the case of genocide, it's a little more tricky because you must prove that there was an intent to destroy a group of people in whole or in part. You can almost always prove intent only by circumstantial evidence and that'll be the tricky part here."

Mounting a Defense

Radovan Karadzic has decided he does not need a lawyer and will represent himself. Experts such as Marko Hoare at London's Bosnian Institute say that is a tactic Slobodan Milosevic used.

"The strategy, which some of these prominent Serb war crimes indictees have pursued, is not to take the trial seriously in the legal sense, but to turn it into a kind of propaganda circus -- so to use the courtroom as an opportunity to make propaganda. This is what [Slobodan] Milosevic did and this is what Vojislav Seselj, the Serbian far-right leader, is also doing. And I suppose they feel that they can't really win or be acquitted, and therefore they want to try and use the opportunity to maximize their case at the propaganda level," says Hoare. "It doesn't make any sense in purely legal terms. If you want to try and be acquitted or at least reduce your sentence, it would make more sense to behave more professionally and to hire a professional lawyer."

Many experts say the trial of Radovan Karadzic will be crucial to the credibility of the international tribunal. They say the proceedings must be seen as fair and the court must not allow Karadzic to make a mockery of the trial -- something Milosevic was able to do so effectively.