Page last updated at 10:57 GMT, Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Karadzic reawakens ghosts of the past

By Gabriel Partos
Balkans analyst

In delivering the opening statement of his defence Radovan Karadzic set out to portray the Bosnian war as one of self-defence by the Bosnian Serbs against the Muslims who, according to him, were bent on dominating the country.

Radovan Karadzic at The Hague on 3 November 2009
Radovan Karadzic faces 11 war crimes charges, including genocide

The wartime Bosnian Serb leader, who is facing 11 charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, elaborated on his controversial version of recent Balkan history by challenging the veracity of many widely-accepted interpretations of what happened during the Bosnian conflict.


Mr Karadzic called the massacre of nearly 8,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica in 1995 a "myth".

He denied that the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, was under siege during the war.

Radovan Karadzic at the Hague
Mr Karadzic ignored previous Hague verdicts

He described the detention camps for Muslims and Croats in north-western Bosnia as "collection centres" which the inmates were free to leave.

And he argued that the authorities of the self-proclaimed Bosnian Serb republic had no plans for the mass expulsions of non-Serbs from the territories under their control.

There was little, if anything, that was new in Mr Karadzic's portrayal of events: by and large, it was a restatement of the case made by the Bosnian Serb leadership during the war, when it had extensive support among Serbs in Bosnia and elsewhere.

If there was a novel aspect to Mr Karadzic's interpretation of history, it was in the way that he ignored the verdicts of numerous trials held before the ICTY in The Hague and several national courts, including the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which had established, beyond reasonable doubt, that these atrocities had taken place, as stated in the indictments.


The massacre at Srebrenica - generally regarded as the worst single atrocity committed in Europe since World War ll - has over the years been documented in the minutest detail.

File picture of the sixth anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre
Mr Karadzic claims about Srebrenica go against previous legal rulings

Srebrenica, a UN-designated "safe area" in eastern Bosnia, was captured by Bosnian Serb forces from the mainly-Muslim government side in July 1995. The women and children were expelled; the men and boys were taken away to be executed, while others were killed as they attempted to escape to government-held territory.

Although the Bosnian Serb authorities tried to cover up what had happened at Srebrenica, the events did not stay secret for long. The very first defendant to be sentenced by the ICTY, in 1996, was Drazen Erdemovic, a self-confessed member of an execution squad, who had pleaded guilty.

There have been several trials relating to the Srebrenica massacre since then. Perhaps the most important was that of General Radislav Krstic, the commander of the Bosnian Serb army's Drina corps, who was in charge of the assault on Srebrenica, and who was found guilty by the ICTY in 2004 of complicity in genocide. Krstic was sentenced to 35 years in jail.

Three years later, the UN's International Court of Justice (ICJ), which hears cases between states and does not judge individuals, ruled in a case brought by Bosnia that Serbia had violated its obligations under the Genocide Convention to prevent the crime of genocide, in respect to the massacre at Srebrenica.

Despite the painstaking efforts to locate the remains of all the Srebrenica victims, around 2,000 are still listed as missing

Mr Karadzic's contention that the massacre at Srebrenica was simply a "myth" that was intended to foster sympathy for the Bosnian Muslims therefore goes against the conclusions of several international legal rulings.

In his opening statement the defendant claimed that no more than 3,000 bodies had been found from the Srebrenica area.

In fact, more than 6,000 bodies have been identified through sophisticated DNA technology as being those of Srebrenica victims. Many of those have been recovered from further afield after the Bosnian Serb authorities had sought to cover up the Srebrenica killings by digging up the mass graves in the area and reburying the remains elsewhere.

Despite the painstaking efforts to locate the remains of all the Srebrenica victims, around 2,000 are still listed as missing.


Turning to the fate of Sarajevo during the war, Mr Karadzic argued that it was "not a city under siege, it was a city divided", and he accused the mainly Muslim Bosnian government authorities of launching attacks on their own civilian population in order to prompt Nato to intervene on their side.

A rose is seen at the memorial to the victims of the Sarajevo siege (file)
Mr Karadzic said the city of Sarajevo was divided, and not under siege

Sarajevo was certainly divided during the war, but for those living in the Bosnian government-controlled part of the city there was little doubt that they were living under siege because their areas were encircled by Bosnian Serb forces, which held all the strategically important heights around the city.

The city survived the three-and-a-half-year siege, relying on the meagre supplies that were delivered as part of the UN's humanitarian aid effort and through a secret tunnel that linked Sarajevo with an area beyond the Bosnian Serb lines.

Around 12,000 inhabitants of Sarajevo died during the siege - many of them the victims of indiscriminate shelling or shooting by Bosnian Serb troops from their vantage points.

General Stanislav Galic, the commander of the Bosnian Serb army's Romanija corps, which encircled Sarajevo, became the first defendant to receive the maximum penalty, life imprisonment, from the ICTY's appeals chamber. In 2006, it upheld a guilty verdict against him on the grounds of his part in a campaign of shelling and sniping against civilians in Sarajevo.


Mr Karadzic sought to depict the detention camps set up for non-Serbs in north-western Bosnia as assembly points for displaced persons who were free to leave when they found a safe place that they could move to.

File picture from the Omarska camp
Camps, including this one at Omarska, were discovered in 1992

The discovery of the camps at Omarska, Trnopolje and Keraterm by the British television news production company, ITN, and the Guardian newspaper brought the full horror of the Bosnian war to international attention in August 1992.

The reports at the time showed the emaciated inmates of these camps, held behind barbed wire. However, in his defence statement Mr Karadzic claimed that the British media outlets had deliberately misrepresented the true state of affairs, with the reporters filming from inside a storage area secured with barbed wire to pretend that the people on the other side were prisoners.

Mr Karadzic's argument echoed similar claims of media manipulation made in Britain in the late 1990s, prompting ITN to launch a libel case, which it won with a high court ruling in its favour in 2001.

The killings, beatings and other forms of maltreatment at the three detention camps in Prijedor municipality were the subject of several trials of camp commanders and guards before the ICTY and the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina, to which some of the cases were transferred.

Among those sentenced by Bosnia's highest court was Zeljko Mejakic, the one-time commander of Omarska, who was jailed for 21 years in 2008 for his role in the crimes against humanity committed at the camp.


Given the weight of legal rulings and judgements by the ICTY and other courts, Mr Karadzic will have an uphill struggle to argue that the events listed in his indictment did not take place in the way they have been formulated by the prosecution.

Momcilo Krajisnik was found guilty of crimes against humanity
Momcilo Krajisnik was one of Mr Karadzic's closest associates

Of course, the prosecution will need to do much more than establish that the grave crimes mentioned in the indictment were perpetrated during the Bosnian war.

It needs to prove that Mr Karadzic was in some way linked to them.

However, the track record of previous cases involving Mr Karadzic's closest associates makes for uncomfortable reading for him.

Momcilo Krajisnik, the one-time speaker of the Bosnian Serb assembly, was sentenced to 27 years' imprisonment in 2006, reduced to 20 years on appeal, after he was found guilty of a range of crimes against humanity.

Mr Karadzic's wartime deputy, Biljana Plavsic, had earlier pleaded guilty to a single charge of persecution of non-Serbs as part of a plea bargain with the prosecution, and was released in 2009 after serving seven years in jail.

Gabriel Partos is a Balkans analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit.

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