The Rebel at The Hague

A year after his arrest, former Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic is mounting a colorful defense to war-crimes charges, blaming Richard Holbrooke and invoking astrology. Ellie Tzortzi reports.

The man sitting up upright defiantly and interrupting the judge in Courtroom One at the Hague war-crimes tribunal bears little resemblance to the thin, humbled fugitive arrested a year ago after a decade on the run as one of the world’s most wanted men. At a lean and sprightly 64 years old, former Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic is actually back in top form. Clean-shaven and with his trademark white mane swaying, he commands the courtroom in a voice of authoritative yet indignant cadences, much as he commanded ecstatic Serb crowds during the 1992-95 war in Bosnia, leading his people in a war that killed 100,000 people and introduced the concept of “ethnic cleansing” into the political vernacular.

The Hague court accuses him of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity for planning the expulsion and murder of Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats in territory coveted by Bosnian Serbs for their breakaway republic, including through the 44-month siege of Sarajevo that killed 10,000 people and the July 1995 massacre of around 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica—Europe’s worst single atrocity since World War II.

In his debut appearance at the Hague, he compared the tribunal to “a natural disaster one has to defend themselves from.”

The grotesque list seems incongruous next to pictures of the man Karadzic became to evade capture. As Dragan David Dabic, an alternative healer specializing in bio-energy, Karadzic hid in plain sight in the Serbian capital Belgrade, and was thought of as soft-spoken, quiet, and a bit of a romantic. He was known to enjoy red wine and the attention of women, and occasionally crooned nostalgic country songs at his local tavern, his eyes beady behind thick glasses, his long beard and flowing white hair—worn in a topknot, to better channel energy, he said—giving him the appearance of a goofier version of Gandalf.

The beard was shaven off and the hair cut to a shaggy bob only a day after his arrest was announced to the world on July 22, 2008. By July 23, Karadzic looked like himself, albeit a bit thinner, his skin shallow compared to its wartime ruddy glow. More importantly, he sounded like himself, delighting his hardline nationalist supporters in Bosnia and Serbia, and unnerving the West, which had hoped if not for remorse, at least for a quieter exit.

In his debut appearance at the Hague, he compared the tribunal to “a natural disaster one has to defend themselves from.” He refused to enter a plea, and said the tribunal has no right to try him under the terms of a 1996 deal he made with the former U.S. envoy to Bosnia, Richard Holbrooke, who allegedly promised Karadzic that he would not be arrested if he withdrew from public life. Holbrooke, now President Barack Obama's envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, repeatedly denied making any such deal when rumors surfaced in the Balkan media in the past decade.

“This was offered to me on behalf of the United States in exchange for my withdrawal from…politics,” Karadzic told the court to much stirring in the audience. “I was determined not to jeopardize the Dayton peace agreement in any way, so I disappeared. In exchange, the U.S. was to fulfill its part of the deal.”

At a later appearance, he explained that he believed the immunity deal to have been sanctioned not just by Washington, but by the tribunal’s governing body, the United Nations Security Council.

“Mr. Holbrooke wasn’t speaking only in the name of America, but it was agreed upon by all the members of the Security Council,” Karadzic said.

He was still refusing to enter a plea in March, saying he is “defending a principle here.”

“Wars cannot be concluded and peace agreements cannot be signed by deceit. One cannot play games with entire regions and even with the world as a whole,” he said. “I’m not going to enter a plea at all for the reasons that I mentioned. This tribunal does not have the right to try me.”

The Holbrooke references are only one of the bombshells Karadzic has enjoyed dropping in the court, relishing the public attention he missed during all his years as the unassuming, bearded healer. His appearances oscillate between exercises in paranoia and conspiracy theorizing, and grandstanding mixed with confident self-righteousness. His rhetorical flourishes sound tired and worn, but still carry an echo of the charisma that underpins his enduring popularity in Bosnia’s Serbian half.

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“I have hard evidence that NATO tried to liquidate me,” he told the court on one occasion.

“I’m quite confident they don’t have a case against me,” he noted another time. “They’re trying to hit me with an air rifle.”

It is clear he looks forward to the court dates and the public appearances, name-dropping constantly about all the famous politicians and academics he plans to invite as witnesses. In October, he asked for permission to give a face-to-face interview to a journalist from Dutch magazine Revu inside the U.N. Detention Unit in Scheveningen. He said it was “only fair” that he speaks in public as “for many years, the prosecutor and others have demonized me in the media without any opportunity for me to present my side of the story.”

He has said he will represent himself in court, but also employ several advisers to help him go through the paperwork. When asked in September whether he was appearing alone in court that day, he told the judge with a wry smile: “I am never alone. But I am here alone. I have my invisible advisers, but I am a Gemini, so there are two of us anyway.”

He showcased his mastery of the quip on another occasion in April, when presiding Judge Iain Bonomy quizzed him on the subject of “adjudicated facts”—facts which have been established in other trials and thus do not need additional attention.

“Have you not considered elements that don’t require challenging?” Bonomy inquired.

“For the time being, the weather is the only thing that comes to mind,” said Karadzic. He went on to slam the judges “from NATO countries” who are forcing him to read piles of documents in “NATO languages.”

In a letter to judges in late January, he cautioned that “the trial chamber must provide Dr. Karadzic with adequate time to prepare for one of the most complex, wide-ranging trials in history, and then spend many years holding a mega-trial on the prosecutor's indictment.”

“The prosecution complain they don’t have enough resources, imagine what it’s like for me!” he noted another time while complaining that the court was not giving him enough money or staff for his defense. “I can’t make up my team with minor players, and I can’t accept any other representation than myself.”

Despite Karadzic’s continual references to a deal with Holbrooke and his motions to have his case dismissed, the court has twice officially refused to halt the proceedings. This month, judges said they could not accept his argument that the tribunal is bound by any alleged agreement, and said the trial will go ahead as planned, likely starting in September.

On hearing that date, Karadzic interjected and piped up with his objections, audaciously asking the judge whether he might have meant September 2010 rather than September 2009.

“The material I have requires months and months of time just to look through it,” he said.

Ellie Tzortzi covered the 2008 arrest of Radovan Karadzic in Belgrade while working as senior correspondent for Reuters News in the Balkans.