The first international war crimes trial since World War II began here Tuesday amid a sense of anticipation and history but with troubling questions hanging in the air and a small-time Bosnian Serb political operator named Dusko Tadic as the lone defendant.
“This trial has clear historic dimensions, but we must all remember that first and foremost this is a criminal trial,” said Gabrielle Kirk McDonald, the American presiding judge of the court, formally known as the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
Prosecutor Grant Niemann, an Australian, began his opening statement by calling the proceedings “a historic occasion, but also a solemn one.”
Tuesday’s trial began more than two years after the tribunal was established by the United Nations to investigate and prosecute war crimes committed during the brutal Balkans conflict. It has also been more than two years since Tadic was arrested in Munich.
Most of the first day was consumed by opening arguments in the case against the 41-year-old Tadic, who is accused of murdering, beating, torturing and otherwise persecuting Muslims, mainly in three northern Bosnia concentration camps during the initial chaotic months after the war there began in April 1992.
In the course of a one-hour and 50-minute opening statement, Niemann said he would take the tribunal on “a journey of unspeakable horrors” as he presented the 31 counts of crimes against humanity, violations of the laws and customs of war, and grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions in the formal indictment against Tadic.
Tadic’s chief defense attorney, a Dutch trial lawyer named Michail Wladimiroff, suggested his client was the innocent victim of an international search for revenge.
Wladimiroff said he would prove that someone else, not Tadic, committed the crimes of which he is accused.
Wladimiroff criticized the relative dearth of rules and guidelines governing the tribunal’s work, complaining those that do exist are untested. He also said the defense is working at an extreme disadvantage, because all its witnesses still live in Serb-controlled parts of Bosnia and are intimidated by strong anti-tribunal sentiment there.
Despite Wladimiroff’s remarks, it was the prosecution, not the defense, that appeared to suffer most from the problem of witness intimidation. It was forced to drop an additional charge of rape against Tadic three days before the trial began when the victim suddenly decided not to testify, apparently after threats were made to her family.
The development is considered significant setback because it would have marked the first treatment of rape as a war crime.
The tribunal’s biggest shortcoming has been its failure to gain custody of those it has indicted. Including Tadic, it has only three of the 57 persons formally charged. Big names, such as Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his military leader Ratko Mladic, remain at large.
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