Michael Dobbs

Mladic trial postponed — again!

As Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell might say, losing track of your legal documents on one occasion can be considered a misfortune. Repeating the same mistake a second time is beginning to look very much like carelessness. The hapless prosecution team in the trial of Ratko Mladic have now conceded that they have failed a second ...

ICTY
ICTY

As Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell might say, losing track of your legal documents on one occasion can be considered a misfortune. Repeating the same mistake a second time is beginning to look very much like carelessness.

The hapless prosecution team in the trial of Ratko Mladic have now conceded that they have failed a second time to make available thousands of documents to the defense that they are required to release under the disclosure rules of the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal. That left the judges no alternative but to suspend the trial indefinitely while they sort out the bureaucratic mess.

It now seems virtually certain that the long-awaited Mladic trial, which opened on May 16 in the Hague with a two-day presentation by the prosecution, will not resume until after the court’s annual recess over the summer. The trial was originally scheduled to resume on May 29, but the date was pushed back until June 25 after the prosecution first acknowledged disclosure problems.

The repeated delays are a reminder of the fact that the wheels of justice grind exceedingly slowly in the Hague. Prosecutors have collected millions of documents from witnesses and other sources over the last decades, all of which have to be translated into Bosnian-Serbian-Croatian and English. These documents constitute an extraordinary historical resource, a significant contribution to establishing the truth about the brutal Balkan wars. The downside, however, is that trials typically drag on for three or four years, ending with the publication of a voluminous judgment, hundreds of pages long.

The desire to speed up the proceedings in the case of Mladic — who described himself as a desperately ill man when he was first transferred to the Hague in May 2011 — may have helped to cause the present impasse. After charging more than 160 people from all over the former Yugoslavia with war crimes of different sorts, the court is now in the final phase of its existence, and will wind up its work after the conclusion of the Mladic and Goran Hadzic trials.

In the case of Mladic, judges and prosecutors wanted to avoid a repetition of the Slobodan Milosevic case which ended inconclusively in  2006 when the former Serbian leader was found dead in his jail cell. After  more than four  years, his trial ended without either a verdict or a judgment, depriving victims of the sense that justice had been achieved.

But the accelerated time frame — only one year to make final preparations for a trial that has already been fifteen years in the making! — evidently proved too much for the tribunal’s cumbersome bureaucratic system to handle. In a filing last week, the defense demanded a further six months of preparation time to be able to study all the prosecution documents.  Prosecutors rejected some of the defense arguments but conceded that the defense still did not have access to "approximately 4,498 documents."

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