Global Policy Forum

War Crimes Prosecutions at The Hague


By Tom Hundley

Baltimore Sun
June 12, 2005

In the lobby of the bland brick insurance company building that now houses the United Nations war crimes tribunal, the video screen that lists the day's courtroom activity is a who's who of Balkan bad guys. In Courtroom II last week, there was Naser Oric, the Bosnian Muslim gangster-turned-warlord whose savage attacks on Bosnian Serbs did much to provoke the retaliatory massacres at Srebrenica. He is charged with multiple counts of murder and cruel treatment, wanton destruction of cities and towns, and plunder of public and private property. Upstairs in Courtroom III, Momcilo Krajisnik, the bushy-browed former president of the Bosnian Serb statelet and longtime political front man for Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, was on trial for genocide and crimes against humanity. And in Courtroom I, the trial of former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic, in its third year, grinds on.

The war crimes trials in The Hague have pretty much fallen off the radar of most Western news organizations. Only a few journalists from the Balkans keep an eye on proceedings. But in recent months, the prosecutions have quietly gathered an impressive head of steam. "This is the busiest we've been," said Jim Landale, a spokesman for the tribunal. "Sometimes we've got courtrooms running from 8 in the morning until 7 at night."

When chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte issued her final round of indictments last March, it brought the total to 162. Of those, 10 remain at large, most notably Karadzic and his top general, Ratko Mladic. And Mladic's days as a fugitive may soon be drawing to a close, according to U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns. After meeting with Serbian officials in Belgrade on Thursday, Burns told reporters, "My strong impression ... is that the [Serbian] government is working very seriously to find General Mladic and there will be a sincere attempt to capture him or to have him voluntarily surrender and to send him to The Hague." Burns added: "We are confident that his days in relative freedom are numbered."

In its early days, the tribunal had to satisfy itself with a few low-level suspects - camp guards, village police and assorted small-town punks. Most of the big shots were still in power. These days, almost all the political and military elites responsible for the worst of the war crimes in the former Yugoslavia have been handed over to the tribunal. Since the beginning of the year, about two dozen top suspects have surrendered to authorities at The Hague. They include Gen. Momcilo Perisic, chief of staff of the Yugoslav army during the wars in Croatia and Bosnia; Gen. Nebojsa Pavkovic, who commanded the Yugoslav army in Kosovo during the 1999 war, and Ramush Haradinaj, the prime minister of Kosovo and a former commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army. Haradinaj stepped down as prime minister before surrendering.

The reason for the rush of surrenders has been coordinated political and economic pressure from the European Union and the United States. "The EU has been very clear; the U.S. has been very clear. There is no daylight between the two, and that has been understood in the capitals of the former Yugoslavia," said Landale, the tribunal spokesman. The EU suspended membership talks with Croatia this year because of its failure to produce Gen. Ante Gotovina, the wartime chief of staff of the Croatian army. Similarly, the Bush administration has been withholding $40 million in economic aid to Serbia, although on Thursday Burns announced that $10 million would be released because of Belgrade's recent steps toward cooperation in the Mladic case. Although most of the recent surrenders have been "voluntary," in many cases local authorities told the suspect that he had no choice. This polite fiction allowed the government and the accused to save face in societies where the tribunal is viewed with disdain and some war crimes suspects are still seen as heroes.

The tribunal's detention facility in The Hague holds 60 suspects, close to its capacity. An additional 18 suspects who are awaiting trial have been released and allowed to return home on the condition that they surrender their passports and report to a local police station every day. At least two of the provisional releases struck some observers as questionable. Jovica Stanisic, who led Milosevic's secret police, and Franko Simatovic, a career intelligence officer who organized the Frenkies, one of Milosevic's most brutal paramilitary groups, were sent back to Serbia last December. "We opposed that," said Florence Hartmann, a spokeswoman for the prosecutor's office. "We said they were dangerous."

The trials have produced little in the way of fireworks or startling disclosures. But last week, during the Milosevic trial, the prosecution presented video footage of Serbian security forces executing several Bosnian Muslim men from the town of Srebrenica, where more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys were murdered in July 1995. The Srebrenica massacre is considered the worst atrocity on European soil since World War II, but many Serbs refuse to believe it happened.

The day after video was shown in court, prosecutor Del Ponte traveled to Belgrade - where she appeared at a news conference with Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, who announced the arrest of eight paramilitaries shown on the video. "I think it is important for our public that we reacted immediately and that based on this shocking and horrible footage, several of those who are involved in this crime are arrested and will answer to justice," said Kostunica, who has been a frequent critic of Del Ponte and the tribunal in the past. Serbian President Boris Tadic also said he was shocked by the video. "Those images are proof of a monstrous crime committed against persons of a different religion, and the guilty had walked as free men until now," he said. The video was later shown on Serbian television, and some observers suggested this might be an effort by the government to prepare public opinion for the arrests of Mladic and perhaps Karadzic, both charged with genocide in connection with the Srebrenica massacre and both regarded as heroes by many Serbs.

Karadzic is believed to have various hide-outs in the mountains of Bosnia and Montenegro, and Mladic is thought to be in Serbia. Serbian Justice Minister Zoran Stojkovic denied reports that the government has been quietly negotiating Mladic's surrender but said he "shared Mr. Burns' optimism" that Mladic would soon be in custody. "The government is doing everything possible to find General Mladic," Stojkovic said. Hartmann, the spokeswoman for the prosecutor's office said, "It would be terrible not to have brought [Karadzic and Mladic] to justice when the relatives of the victims are about to mark the 10th anniversary."

Of the 55 defendants whose cases have been judged by the tribunal, 37 have been convicted of war crimes and are serving, or have served, sentences ranging from three to 40 years; 13 are appealing their convictions; and five were found not guilty. The guilty serve their sentences in various European prisons.

Under pressure from the United States, which is still the largest contributor to the tribunal's $271 million annual budget, the prosecutor's office has agreed to wrap up all trials by the end of 2008, although Karadzic and Mladic will be tried even if caught after the deadline. To lighten the caseload, the tribunal has started transferring some mid- and lower-level defendants back to local courts in the former Yugoslavia.

More Information on International Justice
More Information on the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia
More Information on the Trial of Slobodan Milosevic
More Information on Ratko Mladic
More Information on Radovan Karadzic


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