Global Policy Forum

Bosnian Serb Captured; Sought for War Crimes:


By Peter Finn

Washington Post
July 22, 2008

Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader indicted by a U.N. war crimes tribunal on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity during the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia, was captured in Serbia on Monday. The arrest ends a decade-long manhunt that had repeatedly frustrated his Western pursuers and left festering one of the most murderous chapters in Europe's post-World War II history. The office of Serbian President Boris Tadic said in a statement that Karadzic, who has been in hiding since 1997, was arrested Monday evening "in an action by Serbian security services."

It was unclear whether the arrest came about because of an investigative breakthrough or because political conditions were finally right in Serbia, which has a new pro-Western government that seeks to close the door on the conflicts of the 1990s. Significant numbers of Serbs still see Karadzic as a hero who defended their ethnic group from war-time rivals, so the arrest is likely to bring political pressure on Tadic at home. But it will also remove a major obstacle to Serbia's eventual entry into the European Union. One of the world's most-wanted men, Karadzic was president of ethnic Serbs in Bosnia, who besieged the city of Sarajevo for more than three years and helped plunge the Balkans into a paroxysm of violence as the former Yugoslavia fell apart following communism's collapse.

Karadzic, a former psychiatrist and an amateur poet known for a wavy mane of silver hair, is accused of organizing the 1995 massacre of about 8,000 Muslims in Srebrenica when forces under his leadership overran a U.N. safe area and then summarily executed men and boys who had sought refuge there.

"This is a very important day for the victims who have waited for this arrest for over a decade," said Serge Brammertz, lead prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague, which said that the date of Karadzic's extradition there would be determined "in due course." "It is also an important day for international justice, because it clearly demonstrates that nobody is beyond the reach of the law and that sooner or later all fugitives will be brought to justice."

Karadzic, 63, is believed to have been constantly on the move in recent years, shifting between hideaways in Serbia and the ethnic Serb part of Bosnia, where NATO- and European Union-led forces staged repeated unsuccessful raids in an effort to capture him. Militant Serb nationalists apparently shielded the man who was said to have disguised himself as an Orthodox priest to gain sanctuary in monasteries.

Year after year, Karadzic outfoxed his infuriated pursuers. In 2005, a book of his poetry, titled "Under the Left Breast of the Century," was published in Serbia. And he outlived his onetime sponsor, Slobodan Milosevic, the former Yugoslav president, who died in a prison cell in The Hague in 2006 while on trial on war crimes charges.

The White House praised the arrest. "We congratulate the Government of Serbia, and thank the people who conducted this operation for their professionalism and courage," it said in a statement. "This operation is an important demonstration of the Serbian government's determination to honor its commitment to cooperate" with the U.N. court.

Former U.S. assistant secretary of state Richard Holbrooke, who brokered the 1995 Dayton accords that ended the war in Bosnia, welcomed the capture of a man he described as "a real, true architect of mass murder." "This guy in my view was worse than Milosevic," Holbrooke said, speaking on CNN. "He was the intellectual leader." "At least now, we know he is alive," his wife, Ljiljana Karadzic, told the Associated Press. She had previously called on her husband to turn himself in.

Serbian officials released few details about how Karadzic was captured. Government sources in Belgrade, the capital, told reporters he had been under surveillance for some time, following a tip from a foreign intelligence service. He was apparently taken into custody in Belgrade, underwent formal identification and was brought before an investigative judge in Serbia's war crimes court, an apparent prelude to his extradition to The Hague. The courthouse was surrounded by heavily armed police.

The European Union and the United States have been pressuring Serbia for years to produce Karadzic and his military commander, Ratko Mladic, as a step toward full rehabilitation following the wars of the 1990s. E.U. membership could not proceed, the government was told, until Serbia discharged its duties to the court.

Elections in Serbia this year were seen by many analysts as a contest between pro-Western politicians who wanted to integrate with the European Union and nationalists who favor Russia. The generally pro-Western Tadic was returned to office, an outcome welcomed by the E.U. and the Bush administration.

Richard Dicker, director of the international justice program at New York-based Human Rights Watch, said the arrest could have happened earlier, if not for political obstruction in Serbia. Karadzic was born in Montenegro to a Serbian nationalist father who fought Yugoslavia's then-President Josip Broz Tito, the Communist leader who held the multiethnic country together until his death in 1980. As a teenager, Karadzic moved to Sarajevo, the city he would do so much to destroy, and qualified as a psychiatrist who specialized in treating depression.

Yugoslavia, a federation of six republics, began to disintegrate in the late 1980s and early 1990s, bringing back to the fore centuries-old mutual hatreds among the country's many ethnic groups. Karadzic emerged as Milosevic's local political proxy in an attempt to build a Greater Serbia that would absorb large parts of Bosnia, a multiethnic country that also has major communities of Bosniaks, or Bosnian Muslims, and Croats.

In 1992, Karadzic warned that any attempt to create an independent Bosnia could "make the Muslim people disappear." He became the face of his own promise as a quarter of a million people, many of them civilians, died in a conflict that the war crimes tribunal described as "scenes from hell, written on the darkest pages of human history."

Karadzic's organization, the Serb Democratic Party, which was backed by the Yugoslav army and special police units, armed Serbs who attempted to ethnically cleanse Muslims and Croats as they seized large swaths of territory. Nearly two million people were driven from their homes.

The NATO alliance belatedly intervened and forced Milosevic to the negotiating table, where he signed a peace settlement in December 1995. Karadzic, who was jettisoned by his former sponsor, denounced the deal and in 1997 went into hiding. He now faces a trial on charges of genocide, extermination, murder, willful killing, deportation, inhumane acts and other crimes, according to the international court.

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