The women, mostly elderly, with worn faces framed by scarves, and wearing layers of long flowing clothes and thick heavy coats, sit around tables in the foyer of the Hotel Novotel World Forum, The Hague, Netherlands. Most carry small handkerchiefs, which are well used from wiping eyes, while some flick through family photos or drink coffee, as delegates to the “X Factor” convention file by.

Occasionally, a short, stocky man with dark complexion and carrying a small camera case, ushers a few of the women outside the hotel, past the snaking queue of media vans with their satellite dishes, and onto the open grassed forecourt in front of the adjacent building housing the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), where the women stand hunched and have microphones thrust in their faces by television reporters from around the globe, and are asked questions — through an interpreter — while they hold up placards with shaking arms or point to the printing on specially made T-shirts for the occasion.

One English sentence read: “It is our fault that we are Muslim.”

The key players

The occasion that prompted their pan-European trek was to witness the prosecution’s long-awaited opening address this week in the trial of former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, at the ICTY (more on the tribunal later). He with the wavy, silver bouffant and articulate voice of the Serbian Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina and commander of the Bosnian Serb Army in that bloody and brutal war that wracked the former Yugoslavia from 1992-1995.

He is not to be confused with Slobodan Milosevic, President of Serbia, who was also indicted by the ICTY, but died of a heart attack while on trial in 2006. The third public face in this warring triumvirate was the always-uniformed Ratko Mladic, military chief of staff for the Bosnian Serb Army. Mladic has also been indicted by the ICTY, but is one of only two fugitives still at large.

Once done with their emotional displays for baying media, the women shuffle the 50 metres or so back across the grassed courtyard and return to their tables and chairs inside the cold, stark interiors of the Hotel Novotel. Some stop on the way and smoke several cigarettes in quick succession, alongside bemused KPMG workers, whose offices adjoin the hotel, doing the same thing.

A heavily guarded convoy of vehicles slips quickly through a side security entrance: “Too late,” says the Dutch policeman to the cameramen and camerawomen who’d sprinted from the grassed forecourt down a narrow lane only to see the cars disappear underground. A group of children cycle across the outdoor forecourt, the speed bumps of criss-crossing media and power cables not denting their boisterous progress one bit, and seemingly oblivious to the proceedings; perhaps they’ve seen it all before.

The Hague (Dan Haag in Dutch) after all, has a long history of overseeing international law. It became a seat of government for the courts of Holland in 1586. It hosted the world’s first international peace conference in 1899 and has been producing jurisprudence, so to speak, ever since The Court of Arbitration spawned the United Nation’s International Court of Justice in the aftermath of World War II.

As the time draws nearer for Karadzic’s scheduled 2.15pm appearance in courtroom one, the hotel foyer empties as all interested parties, some already with public gallery passes, make their way to the visitor’s entrance, while many without such passes and other spectators gather on the forecourt, hoping to see what, I do not know. Several tourists wandering along Johan de Wittlaan, the main road leading from the nearby Gemeentemuseum, stop and linger to watch as many of the men and women who trekked from the former Yugoslavia gather at the gates, while packs of media people, with boom mikes protruding into the air, squeeze and slide in and around the thronging mob.

And for a second day running, Karadzic does not front the trial, much to the despair of many who’d waited years to see him finally face his accusers in court. He is defending himself, and so claims he needs at least another 10 months to prepare, hence his non-appearance. Presiding judge O-Gon Kwon was not impressed, again, noting in a very subdued but purposeful statement: “There are circumstances where the chamber may proceed in the absence of the accused [so] in light of the accused voluntarily and unequivocally waiving his right to be present … the chamber is of the view that this hearing can proceed in his absence.” And so it did.

When news of Kardzic’s no-show quickly filters to the crowd still gathered around the heavily guarded entrance (via the media watching a live feed in their satellite vans), many of the women become distraught and angry, shouting comments in their native tongue, but their outrage and frustration was palpable and understood by everyone.

“Why can’t the court just go and drag him in to appear; they’re holding him in their own cells?” I heard a man vent in broken English.

It seemed a more than reasonable question in the circumstances. Cameras and microphones came even closer to some of the women, now kneeling and holding the steel uprights of the security fence, their heads bowed, the collars of their coats gathered high around their necks, their condemnations (of the court? Karadzic?) muffled with emotion and despair. You wonder what on earth could ease these peoples’ grief. The highest penalty the ICTY can impose is life imprisonment.

So with judge O-Gon Kwon’s go-ahead, prosecutor Alan Tieger outlines the lengthy charge sheet against Karadzic in a five-hour statement, which includes 11 counts of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. The details relate to Karadzic’s alleged part in, among a long list of atrocities, the siege of Sarajevo during which 12,000 civilians died, the massacre of up to 8000 Bosnian men and youths in Srebrenica, and using UN peacekeepers as human shields.

Describing Karadzic as a “hands-on leader who maintained direct contact”, Tieger said, he “harnessed the forces of nationalism, hatred and fear to implement his vision of an ethnically separated Bosnia … In the course of conquering the territory that he claimed for the Serbs, his forces killed thousands of Bosnian Muslims and Croats, imprisoned more in squalid and brutal camps and detention facilities, and forced hundreds of thousands away from their homes.”

Interestingly, Karadzic, while denying all charges, has not entered a formal plea to date. As is the tribunal’s custom, a not-guilty plea was entered for all counts on his behalf. Like Milosevic, he has refused all legal assistance, choosing instead to represent himself. The two days this week were to air the opening address of the prosecution. Karadzic has two days next week to do likewise in his defence.

Then the prosecution’s case begins, which is expected to last the best part of a year. This projected period has been trimmed after the court’s judges requested the prosecution reduce the scale of the trial, which presently depends on more than a million pages of testimony, numerous crime scenes and hundreds of witnesses. Karadzic will then be allowed an equal amount of time to mount his defence. Meaning a verdict won’t be due until possibly well into 2012.

Where to from here?

Letters are flying backwards and forwards between the judges and the defendant’s legal advisers this week in attempts to ensure that Karadzic meets the court-appointed schedule in delivering his opening address next week, if not in person, then by a court-appointed legal team. Summoning a team at such short notice presents a new set of challenges for the ICTY and its highest profile case to date, not least of which is the prospect of another delay. Other options include allowing the trial to continue until cross-examination begins or imposing an amicus curiae (friend of the court) to represent the interests of the accused in the absence of a lawyer.

As for the survivors and relatives of victims of the Bosnian war who’ve come this far, geographically and emotionally to The Hague, you wonder how much longer their vigil in the Novotel foyer and outside the adjoining ICTY can last. Hafiza Ibisevic lost her husband, two sons and a brother in Srebrenica. She had a pass to the visitor’s gallery inside courtroom one, and watched in vain over two days for Karadzic to appear in the dock.

She told NRC Handelsblad: “He continues to torture me … I wanted to get some closure today, but after my husband and children, he has taken that away from me, too.”

International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) — fast facts:

  • A United Nations mandated body to prosecute war crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia since 1991
  • First such tribunal for prosecuting war crimes since Nuremberg and Tokyo
  • Has its own team of investigators but not its own police force; arrests can only be effected by police or peace forces of signatory countries
  • Operates with 1100 staff and a budget of $US342 million (2008/09)
  • President — Patrick Lipton Robinson (Jamaica), vice-president — judge O-Gon Kwon (South Korea)’ chief prosecutor — Serge Brammertz (Belguim)
  • Prisoners are held in a detention centre (formerly a prison) in the nearby seaside resort of Scheveningen
  • Tribunal has concluded proceedings against 120 individuals, and has ongoing proceedings against 41 (including Karadzic), two of which are still at large (Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadzic)
  • Longest sentence passed — life, reduced to 40 years on appeal.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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