Karadzic to base defence on claim that genocide did not take place at Srebrenica


The risky strategy is a direct challenge to past rulings by the tribunal, writes Helen Warrellin London and Neil MacDonaldin Belgrade

RADOVAN KARADZIC, the former Bosnian Serb leader charged with war crimes, will base his defence on the argument that no genocide occurred at Srebrenica, the site of Europe's worst massacre since the second World War.

Goran Petronijevic, Karadzic's chief legal adviser, said his client would argue that the killings were not genocide, a direct challenge to the Yugoslavia tribunal's previous rulings that forces belonging to Karadzic's ethnic Serb breakaway state killed about 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in July 1995.

Anthony Dworkin, executive director of the UK-based Crimes of War Project, said such a legal strategy carried risk. "Karadzic is taking a long shot to put it mildly. He would be lucky to get very far with this," he said.

In the aftermath of the Srebrenica massacre, international forensic teams gathered evidence from mass graves that confirmed the scale of the atrocity.

Regardless of the number of victims, the prosecution must show specific intent on the part of Karadzic to commit genocide.

Petronijevic, a Belgrade lawyer, has argued that even if Srebrenica was the scene of war crimes, the killings appeared too spontaneous to prove such premeditation.

Prosecutors at The Hague, where the tribunal has been running for 15 years, need a high- profile genocide conviction.

Slobodan Milosevic, the former Yugoslav president, died before judges could reach a verdict on his four-year trial. Critics of prosecutors in the case said the charge sheet against Milosevic - which spanned a decade of conflicts in three former Yugoslav countries - was simply too ambitious.

Perhaps with this in mind, prosecutors last month submitted a streamlined indictment against Karadzic focusing on 27 of Bosnia-Herzegovina's municipalities rather than 41.

Dworkin believes the prosecution will benefit from the strength of documentary evidence against Karadzic. "He was much more closely involved than Milosevic in drawing up plans in conjunction with other colleagues in the Bosnian Serb leadership, so there's much more of a paper trail connecting Karadzic to a campaign of ethnic cleaning," he said. "It will be much easier to provide a direct link."

Karadzic might also inadvertently aid prosecutors, having vowed to represent himself.

Sir Geoffrey Nice, the lead prosecutor in the Milosevic trial, said the defendant's courtroom antics were a gift to the prosecution: "Milosevic chose all the wrong witnesses and was a lousy lawyer in his own case, and exposed the darker side of his personality that we may never have proved."

But prosecuting Karadzic could be far from simple now that his legal team has announced its aim to poke holes in the "imported" evidence from earlier trials. "Negotiations with other defendants in front of the tribunal led them to confess 'genocide' in exchange for leniency," Petronijevic said.

Stéphane Bourgon, a Canadian lawyer working for the Karadzic defence, agreed. "Witnesses who previously provided incriminatory evidence against Karadzic may very well have had a real interest in blaming the top guy," he said.

Some of the strongest evidence against Karadzic comes from Miroslav Deronjic, a relatively low-level Bosnian Serb former politician from near Srebrenica who testified in the Milosevic trial.

He testified that he had received orders from Karadzic in May 1995 to prepare for an offensive against the Muslim enclave.

But Deronjic - who pleaded guilty on reduced charges - died last year while serving his sentence. Prosecutors must persuade the judges to allow his testimony, even though he cannot be cross-examined.

Even Karadzic's florid political speeches - calling for Serbs to live with each other and apart from other ethnic groups - could be off-limits, according to John Jones, a British barrister specialising in war crimes. "As a politician you may say inflammatory things sometimes as part of taking a position. It can therefore be wrong to use political speeches as a basis for a criminal conviction," said Jones.

Karadzic will probably argue that he should not even be on trial. If judges allow, he will call to the stand Richard Holbrooke, the former US envoy, who allegedly offered the Bosnian Serb leader immunity in exchange for disappearing from the political scene after the war.

"We have statements of dozens of people who participated [in the deal]. We have plenty of circumstantial evidence these guarantees were given . . . and we have tapes," said Petronijevic.

Sir Geoffrey warned: "Karadzic might be able to make a lot of the Holbrooke deal if he could prove that it was made. There is clearly evidence that some sort of deal was made - Holbrooke himself accepts that."

Holbrooke maintains Karadzic stepped down without receiving any assurances. - ( Financial Timesservice)