Karadzic Wants More Time For War Crimes Defense

The war crimes trial of former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic resumes in The Hague Tuesday. Karadzic wasn't in court for the opening of the trial Monday. He was protesting what he says is lack of time to prepare for the case. Karadzic was indicted in 1995 and was captured more than a year ago.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. A former Bosnian Serb leader is playing for time. Radovan Karadzic is boycotting his own war crimes trial in The Hague. Today like yesterday he failed to show up in court. He's protesting what he says is lack of time to prepare for the case, even though he was indicted in 1995 and was captured more than a year ago. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli joins us on the line from The Hague, where the trial is supposed to take place.

Hi, Sylvia.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: I have to say that I'm surprised that a man who is in custody can refuse to show up at his own trial.

POGGIOLI: Well, that's certainly part of the rules here at the tribunal. And you know, yesterday's session was very anticlimactic. The defendant's chair was empty. There was just a pair of headphones lying on the table. Karadzic says he needs at least nine more months to prepare his case.

The prosecution has presented some one million pages listing the atrocities Karadzic is accused of during the war in Bosnia between 1992 and 1995 against Bosnia's Muslims and Croats.

Yesterday's session lasted only 15 minutes, but outside the atmosphere was very tense. The many survivors of the Bosnian war, mostly wives and mothers of the victims came by bus from Sarajevo. They were furious. They carried a long banner with the names of thousands of victims and the words Europe Shame on You.

There's a widespread suspicion among them that the West as they see it is not willing to seek the full truth and bring justice to the victims. They're very mindful of Karadzic's mentor, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, who died in 2006 before a verdict could be reached.

INSKEEP: Well, that does raise a question though. What can the judges do if Radovan Karadzic continues to stay away from the courtroom?

POGGIOLI: Well, yesterday the presiding judge, O-Gon Kwon of South Korea, said there are circumstances in which a trial can proceed in the absence of the accused who has voluntarily waived his right to be present. And he said he could impose legal counsel on Karadzic. But that's not an easy decision given the precedent here at The Hague.

It was a move that backfired with Karadzic's mentor Slobodan Milosevic, who refused to work with his assigned counsel and caused huge delays in the trial. It also happened with the trial of another Serbian defendant, Vojislav Seselj, who went on a hunger strike and delayed his trial for a year. And that trial is still underway.

INSKEEP: You mentioned, Sylvia Poggioli, people out on the streets angry and protesting. And of course there are people around the world who would like this trial to go forward. Is there pressure on the judges? Do they feel that pressure in the courtroom?

POGGIOLI: Oh, absolutely. They feel it certainly from the victims, and then they also feel it very directly from the United Nations, which is - which finances this tribunal. The tribunal was originally planned to last only until 2008, but the delays in capturing major war criminals has kept it open.

And the costs are very high. The two year budget for 2008, 2009 was almost $350 million. That pays for a staff of more than 1,000 who run the tribunal, as well as the detention center where the defendants are kept.

INSKEEP: And I want to ask one other thing as well, because we have this defendant who's got one of the most notorious names in the world and who is, for the moment at least, boycotting or delaying his own trial. Once he does show up, if he does show up, does he have a case for his defense?

POGGIOLI: Well, you know, he has repeatedly insisted that the tribunal has no right to try him, because he claims he struck a secret deal with the United States' then Balkan envoy Richard Holbrook. In the 15 months he's been in detention, Karadzic has filed some 270 motions. Holbrook denies the existence of any such deal. And the tribunal has rejected all of Karadzic's motions, saying international law doesn't recognize amnesties or any kind of exceptions.

So we can expect that Karadzic's defense will try to shift the focus from him to the world outside the Balkans. He'll try to present himself as the defender of his country. And he's going to try to bring as many international players into the courtroom as he can.

INSKEEP: Will he try to bring Richard Holbrook, who's once again a top U.S. diplomat?

POGGIOLI: He will probably try. We certainly don't know though if Holbrook will appear in court.

INSKEEP: Sylvia, thanks very much.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli is at The Hague.

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