The Case of the Missing Defendant

Radovan Karadzic skipped the opening day of his war-crimes trial in the Hague, infuriating survivors of the Bosnian conflict who had traveled to court to bear witness. Lauren Comiteau reports from court.

Jerry Lampen, Pool / AP Photo

Radovan Karadzic skipped the opening day of his war-crimes trial in the Hague, infuriating survivors of the Bosnian conflict who had traveled there bear witness. Lauren Comiteau reports from court.

Making good on his threat, Radovan Karadzic failed to appear in court for the opening of his trial, leading to an adjournment of the proceedings a mere 20 minutes after they began. The former Bosnian Serb president is charged with 11 counts of war crimes, including genocide, for leading the 1992-95 Bosnian war that left more than 100,000 people dead and saw Europe’s only genocide since the Holocaust.

His failure to show up at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia angered judges and prosecutors alike. Prosecutor Hildegard Uertz-Retzlaff accused Karadzic of manipulating the court now that he’s exhausted all legal avenues to grant the time extension he says he needs to prepare his case. Karadzic, who says he is innocent, has chosen to represent himself and claims to have about 1 million pages of evidence to sort through. But judges have already denied his request for more time.

“This is like a theater,” said Kada Hotic of the Movement of Mothers from the Enclave of Srebrenica and Zepa. “We were expecting something more serious. We are losing hope.”

‘There is no reason today to not start the trial,” Uertz-Retzlaff told the court. She pointed out the letter Karadzic sent to judges last week, saying he’d be happy to give both them and the prosecution a few weeks’ notice once he’s ready to proceed to trial. “In other words,” Uertz-Retzlaff said, “the trial can only start if the accused says it should.” She told judges they have two choices: Either assign Karadzic a lawyer or let him continue to obstruct the proceedings.

The prosecutor wasn’t the only one who was angry. Some 150 survivors of the war traveled from Bosnia to witness Karadzic’s day in court. That he failed to turn up left them shocked and furious, with one woman even threatening a hunger strike. “Do they realize people are waiting for justice? That this is our last and only hope to see a bit of it,” asked a fuming Kada Hotic. She is with the Movement of Mothers from the Enclave of Srebrenica and Zepa, or so reads her business card. Srebrenica is where the massacre of some 8,000 Muslim men and boys took place, one of the events that earned Karadzic a genocide charge. Fourteen years after the crime, one gets the feeling Hotic is used to handing out her card. “This is like a theater. We were expecting something more serious,” she said. “We are losing hope.” Tribunal officials met with the disappointed survivors privately after court to answer their many questions.

Presiding Judge O-Gon Kwon reconvened court until Tuesday when they will attempt to start the trial again. He urged Karadzic to reconsider his decision and be there. The 64-year-old former politician, psychiatrist, poet and New Age guru is charged with two counts of genocide—the second for the ethnic cleansing of Muslims and Croats from parts of Bosnia—in addition to persecution, extermination, murder, taking U.N. peacekeepers hostage and the 44-month-long siege of Sarajevo. His legal advisers in Belgrade say he’ll be a no-show Tuesday and won’t appear in court until his extension is granted. Karadzic has also said he will not accept a court-appointed attorney.

“I think judges are sending the message that they’re willing to be fair, but they also want to be firm in terms of how this right to self-representation is exercised,’ says Param-Preet Singh, counsel with Human Rights Watch’s International Justice Program. She believes judges will let prosecutors make their opening statements Tuesday with or without Karadzic in the dock. “They’ve learned lessons from past accused and now’s their opportunity to show the extent to which those lessons can be applied.”

She’s referring to the Tribunal’s other high-profile case, that of Slobodan Milosevic, the former Yugoslav president who died in custody here three years ago before a verdict could be reached. “Both judges and the prosecution want to make sure the legacy of the Tribunal isn’t confused with the premature end of the Milosevic trial,” says Singh. His four-year trial has become synonymous with how not to prosecute a war-crimes case.

Many of the crimes Karadzic is charged with have already been established as fact in other cases at this Tribunal, and military leaders under his command have been held responsible for them: The 1994 shelling of Sarajevo’s Markale marketplace, the detention camps in northwest Bosnia in the early war years, and the 1995 genocide in Srebrenica. With Milosevic dead and General Ratko Mladic, Karadzic’s military leader, still at large, Karadzic is the court’s first chance for a conviction of a top leader, which has always been the Tribunal’s mandate.

“Karadzic wrongly believed that the world would stop looking for him,” says Singh of his 13 years on the run before being nabbed in Serbia working as an alternative-health healer, “and the fact that his trial starts, if not tomorrow, then in a few months, that he’s in detention, in the custody of the Tribunal, sends a message to other leaders accused of committing the worst kinds of crimes. It’s a reality check. They can’t simply expect to wait out justice.” But first, they must appear in court.

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.