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Karadzic verdict expected to be 'historic,' German judge says

The trial of wartime Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague is of great significance, says German judge Wolfgang Schomburg.

DW: Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader in the 1990s, is charged with genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. How do you expect the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) to rule?

Wolfgang Schomburg: I could only speculate. After six long years of gathering evidence it's hard to say what the verdict will be. At any rate, it's the historic end to, and culmination of, the tribunal's work.

Why is that?

It's the first time the judiciary has systematically processed several armed conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. Imagine Mr. Karadzic had been caught early on, say in 1995, and put on trial. They wouldn't have had all the evidence they evetually gathered overtime in other lawsuits, or that suddenly cropped up, in what I like to call this "major final trial." It's similar to the procedures in Germany when the authorities were figuring out who was responsible for the shootings at the Berlin Wall. They started with the marksmen, and ended up with the East German polit bureau.

How important are the Karadzic trial and verdict for coming to terms with the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina?

The ruling summarizes the work done in individual trials over the past 20 years. They found out there was a so-called Plan A and a Plan B, which detailed what was to be done with the regions that were predominantly Muslim, or where Muslins were a minority. Without detailed proof, and without giving him the opportunity to comment, most rulings ascribed these plans to Karadzic. So this is the culmination of the trial and the question whether Karadzic drew up this masterplan on his own, or in collaboration with other people.

The trial has dragged on for six years - why so long?

Because there is so much material. The state prosecutor fell back on everything that came up in the other trials, producing it as evidence against Karadzic. The defense, on the other hand, insisted on calling on people who had already been convicted, practically reopening individual proceedings in brief. That's one of the reasons it took so long. Apart from that, unfortunately - it's the system. From the start, they chose the wrong system, the Anglo-American system. The victims and the relatives of the victims barely understood what was going on in The Hague, and it unnecessarily drew out the trial.

Wolfgang Schomburg

Wolfgang Schomburg International Criminal Law

People in Bosnia-Herzegowina very often lamented that the trial was taking so long. After all, the victims' families feared Karadzic might die before receiving the verdict, which is what happend in the case of Slobodan Milosevic. Could the Karadzic case be a lesson for the international tribunal to hurry up such cases in the future?

I hope so; in particular, in view of the fact that the ICTY has, like the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, done a very good job. It seems as if the international community fears that an independent criminal justice might become too effective. Surely, we all would like to see crimes like those currently committed by various parties in Syria dealt with and solved by a court. But that's something the UN Security Council in particular doesn't want at the moment.

So the ICTY did a good job in the Karadzic trial, and the other many other cases?

Under the circumstances, yes. After all, everyone concerned was thrown in at the deep end, and there's never in the history of mankind been a tribunal comparable to the one dealing with the former Yugoslavia, - apart from the Nuremburg trials. On the other hand, it also showed that large states, to word it carefully, are very concerned that independent judges might investigate too thoroughly and extend their inquiries to people to be held accountable that come from nations other than the former Yugoslavia. But concerning the defendants that were on the wanted list when I was a judge with the ICTY, I can say all 163 persons were brought before a court.

Can we expect Karadzic to appeal?

Depending on the verdict, we can be sure to expect an appeal. Probably from both sides, that is from the state prosecutor and from Mr. Karadzic.

What happens to the ICTY after the Karadzic verdict; in particular, given the fact that the decision was made to close the court and replace it with a so-called Residual Mechanism, which is how it's working today?

Clearly, the big powers, and I mean the five veto powers in the Security Council, were no longer interested in seeing the ICTY or the Rwanda tribunal continue their work, for whatever reasons.

To a certain extent, the Russian side, for instance, must have been displeased over how far the investigations against Serbia had gone, or the inquiries into French nationals in the Rwanda tribunal. From a legal point of view, they did something that never should be done, namely dissolve a court before its work is done. As far as I'm concerned, dissolving the court before the trial was completed amounted to unseemly political meddling, while making sure that a court with a set of different judges, with a different name, takes its place in the middle of a pending case. That's a lesson for the future. International criminal jurisdiction still has to work hard for its independence.

Wolfgang Schomburg is an expert on international criminal law. In 2001, he became the first German judge at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). He was a judge at both the ICTY and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda until 2008.

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