Radovan Karadzic, on trial for war crimes in The Hague, finally showed up in court Tuesday—to argue that the real crime is how little time he’s had to prepare.
Radovan Karadzic appeared before judges at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia Tuesday—not for his trial, but for an administrative hearing on how to proceed with his case. He boycotted the opening of his genocide trial this week and last while prosecutors argued that as “supreme commander” of the Bosnian Serbs, he is responsible for the persecution, extermination, murder, and deportation of tens of thousands of non-Serbs during the 1992-95 Bosnian war.
The tribunal is tentatively scheduled to close its doors in 2013, and Karadzic, says Mirko Klarin, may be hoping to wait it out. “It’s just another bluff. He also has a reputation as a gambler.”
Appearing well-rested and well-fed, Karadzic insisted he doesn’t want to boycott the proceedings, but said “I cannot take part in something that has been bad from the start and where my fundamental rights have been violated." He says he’s been working around the clock, given up his outside walks and sports activities and made an “inhuman effort” to get through the 1.3 million pages of documents that prosecutors have thrust on him. "I would really be a criminal if I were to accept these conditions and enter into a trial and proceedings for which I am not prepared,” he told judges as he asked for several more months to prepare his case.
“It’s just Karadzic’s battle for time, hoping that somehow he will last much longer than the tribunal,” says Mirko Klarin, whose SENSE News Agency has been covering the tribunal since 1998. The tribunal is tentatively scheduled to close its doors in 2013, and Karadzic, says Klarin, may be hoping to wait it out. “It’s just another bluff. He also has a reputation as a gambler.”
Klarin remembers covering the failed Bosnia peace talks in Geneva in 1993 and the rumors that Karadzic was crossing the border into France to hit the casinos. “So during the day he was gambling on the negotiation table and then during the night he went to the casino to gamble there for real. Now I think he’s gambling with the appeals chamber. He’s bluffing. But I think the appeals chamber has read his bluff.”
But in the continuing back and forth that’s been plaguing these proceedings since Karadzic arrived in The Hague 16 months ago, prosecutors again accused Karadzic of manipulating the proceedings by refusing to show up. In a move reminiscent of his onetime mentor, former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, who died in 2006 before his trial was competed, Karadzic turned the tables and said it was prosecutors—not him—who were manipulating matters by bombarding him with so much material. He insists he only got all the evidence he needs to look through in May.
“That argument is obviously his invention, that’s all,” says Klarin. “Already last September, he was complaining that the prosecution disclosed so many documents that he was covered in piles of it.”
Prosecutors insist they’ve met all their disclosure deadlines. And judges reminded Karadzic that both the trial chamber and the appeals chamber have already ruled that he has had enough time to prepare. “It is the trial chamber and not an accused person who decides readiness for trial,” said Presiding Judge O-Gon Kwon.
Prosecutors suggested the court has the power to force Karadzic to show up. They also urged judges to appoint an attorney for him—something Karadzic rejected, saying he already has a great team of legal advisers.
“I don’t need other people, I just need time,” he said. “There is not a single lawyer who will need less time to prepare than this defense—this defense under my leadership that is.” Karadzic let out a few other reminders of his presidential tendencies and self-importance. He called his trial “the last defense, the last opportunity at arriving at the truth.” And in voicing his objection to having a lawyer imposed on him, he remarked, “Nobody can get through all this material better than I can. No lawyer. I know what was going on. I know what needs to be pointed out and emphasized and presented.”
It’s those kinds of leadership displays that prosecutors will be using against him in court. During their two days of opening arguments, they played videos of his speeches in the Bosnian parliament during the war years, conversations from intercepted phone calls and news clips where Karadzic himself talks about coming up with the plan to ethnically cleanse Bosnia of its non-Serbs and create a Serb-only state, a plan that prosecutors say ultimately resulted in the 1995 genocide at Srebrenica, where some 8,000 Muslim men and boys were executed over the course of a few July days. Karadzic is still denying those crimes took place, something prosecutor Alan Tieger wasn’t buying. “When the man who was the supreme commander of the forces that committed the crimes, the man who acknowledged that he set those forces in motion, the man who’s in contact with his forces throughout—when that man denies what happens, it is because he knows that the truth condemns him.”
Prosecutors were planning to present their first three witnesses Wednesday, all Bosnians who were expected to testify about alleged war crimes. They’ve now had to return home. Further delays seem inevitable. Prosecutors recognize that even a court-appointed attorney will likely need at least a few more months to prepare—what prosecutor Hildegard Uertz-Retzlaff called a "reasonable price" to pay to ensure an expeditious trial. The trial is already on hold, at least until judges issue their written decision on how to proceed later this week.
Freelance journalist Lauren Comiteau has covered the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and other stories from the Netherlands for Time magazine, CBS Radio, CBC, VOA, The Chicago Tribune and others since 1996. Her most recent gig was as deputy editor of Time Out Amsterdam, where she wrote the family issues column Domestic Blitz.