- By Michael Dobbs
Michael Dobbs is a prize-winning foreign correspondent and author. Currently serving as a Goldfarb fellow at the Committee on Conscience of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Dobbs is following legal proceedings in The Hague. He has traveled to Srebrenica, Sarajevo and Belgrade, interviewed Mladic’s victims and associates, and is posting documents, video recordings, and intercepted phone calls that shed light on Mladic's personality.
Thanks to the online video feed from the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal, I have been watching Radovan Karadzic rebut charges that he ordered the murder of 7,000-plus Muslim prisoners following the fall of Srebrenica. It is a curtain-raiser to the arguments we can expect when the Ratko Mladic trial finally opens in The Hague on May 14. (The date has now been finalized.)
As you can see from the photographs above, Karadzic is a man with many sides-poet, psychiatrist, president, fugitive from justice, New Age healer. His latest role is that of defense attorney, representing himself, in a trial that has been going on for over two years. Superficially at least, he is playing the part with utmost seriousness. In contrast to Mladic, who has become known for his courtroom tantrums, Karadzic treats the judges with great respect, referring to them as “Excellencies,” and is polite to prosecution witnesses, thanking them for their testimony.
But when you examine his defense strategy in more detail, you have to wonder about his goal. Again in contrast to Mladic, Karadzic has a plausible defense against the charge that he ordered the Srebrenica killings. He was not on the scene himself, and did not have direct operational control over the executioners, who answered to Mladic as the Bosnian Serb military commander. Furthermore, we know that relations between the two men were extremely strained in July 1995. Karadzic might have followed the example of Drina Corps commander Radislav Krstic in pinning primary responsibility for Srebrenica on Mladic.
Instead, he has chosen a different tack, which seems to have even less chance of succeeding than the “It wasn’t me, Your Honor” strategy. He is attempting to deny basic facts about the case that have been established by the tribunal in a long series of trials, beginning with the Krstic case in 1998. While conceding that there were some “revenge killings” of Muslims by Serbs after Srebrenica, he insists that most of the deaths were “combat-related.” In the Karadzic version of events, Muslim soldiers fleeing from Srebrenica died from a variety of causes — suicide, ambushes, fighting among each other — that had nothing to do with mass executions ordered from above.
Some of his claims are so preposterous that they would be laughed out of court in the United States. Take his response to a prosecution expert, William Haglund, who challenged his assertion that people buried in one grave could have been killed “on the battlefield” by pointing out that 63 per cent of the skulls recovered had blindfolds attached. Haglund noted drily that “people don’t fight with their blindfolds on,” but this was not enough for Karadzic, who argued that the blindfolds could have been “bandannas” that slipped down as the bodies decomposed.
Haglund pointed out that the blindfolds were tied “very tight…They didn’t slip. They weren’t hats or bindings on a head. They didn’t go up or didn’t go down. They stayed on the eyes. They were tied very tight.”
Decide for yourselves. Here is a skull recovered from the mass grave at Kozluk. Blindfold or warrior ribbon?
So if Karadzic is not trying to convince the court with his arguments, who is he attempting to convince? The answer to that seems clear: public opinion back home in Serbia and “Republika Srpska.” Karadzic served as president of the self-proclaimed Bosnian Serb statelet from 1992 to 1995, and still views himself as a man who will go down in Serbian history for “defending the rights of the Serbs.” If he acknowledged that the crimes of which he has been accused actually took place, he would destroy his own place in history.
While his fortunes have changed greatly, Karadzic the man seems little changed from the nationalist firebrand I met in Sarajevo back in September 1991, on the eve of the Bosnia war. On that occasion, he treated me to a tirade about Muslims attempting to “create an Islamic state” in Bosnia, and produced a map that purported to show that two thirds of Bosnia was rightfully Serb. His map was remarkably similar to what the multi-ethnic country did look like by the fall of 1992, after hundreds of thousands of Muslims had been chased from their homes through “ethnic cleansing.”
It has been a relief to see that not all Bosnian Serbs, even those who took part in the Srebrenica massacre, think like their former leader. Earlier this week, he was confronted by a prosecution witness, Momir Nikolic, who publicly apologized for his role in the July 1995 killings. At the end of his cross-examination, Karadzic asked Nikolic if he wished he could have done anything differently.
“I would have run away as fast as I could,” replied Nikolic, who is serving a 20- year sentence for crimes against humanity. “I made mistakes and I took it like a man….That is what I have done, and I haven’t regretted [cooperating with the tribunal], believe me. I feel all the better for confessing to my part in the crime. I have accepted my responsibility and I said I was sorry. Now I can rest easier because I’ve done it.”
We are unlikely to hear that kind of speech from Radovan Karadzic — or Ratko Mladic.