The court's on trial

Posted: Jun 17, 2002 12:00 AM
High-minded people who want to see Osama bin Laden tried by an international court -- if Osama's alive, and if he is captured -- ought to take a look at the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal trial of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic taking place at The Hague. Slobo is on trial for multiple counts of "crimes against humanity," such as torture, murder and forced deportation of ethnic Albanians, Bosnian Muslims and Croats. The numbers are staggering -- with the estimate for displaced Albanians reaching 800,000. The agony, death and destruction -- the horror of Serb police separating women and children of villages, then firing upon the men -- defies quick description. Yet Slobo has managed to turn the focus away from the thousands of victims, dead and alive, and onto his rhetorical indictment of what he calls "victor's justice." Milosevic is a lawyer by training, and he knows how to game the system. The trial is slated to take 14 months, and Milosevic has made sure that he gets half of all court time, often using it to badger witnesses and take advantage of the fact that, in war, both sides have blood on their hands. If his thugs rounded up families and shot them, well, NATO bombings also killed civilians. Milosevic has not been shy about displaying photos of charred bodies, as if there is a moral equivalent to purposefully shooting civilians and inadvertently killing civilians in an attempt to protect them. "Only the Nazis could have conceived of this massive bombing," Milosevic said of the NATO attacks. Ironically, Milosevic is aided by prosecutors' decision to indict him for killing or evicting people because of their race or religion. "Genocide is a very difficult charge to prove from a purely legal point of view because special intent must be proven," international law scholar Avril MacDonald told The Washington Post. When a trial focuses on intent, the focus can move from the carnage and suffering to the reasons why perpetrators killed people. Or as Hoover Institution fellow Dennis Bark put it, "Genocide; normal people call that murder." (The failure of the three-judge panel to curb Milosevic's forensic theatrics prompted Bark to dismiss the feckless Chief Judge Richard May as "the Lance Ito of The Hague.") Readers should know that the U.N. tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda are temporary. President Bush wisely has rejected a U.S. role in a permanent U.N. International Criminal Court. Bush was right because U.N. tribunal sentencing can be a joke. Last year, The Hague court found Serb General Radislav Krstic, then 53, guilty of genocide, largely based on his command role in the 1995 Srebenica slaughter of 7,000 to 8,000 Muslim men and boys. His sentence: 46 years. In the court's eye, the slaughter of thousands of people didn't even merit a life sentence. And of course, since U.N. types are so lofty, there is no death penalty -- even for thugs responsible for killing thousands of innocent people. Thus, Slobo knows that the worst that can happen to him is that, after he turns a 14-month murder trial into a mockery, he will face a sentence of life in prison. In prison, of course, Milosevic is likely to live far longer than he would live as a free civilian, vulnerable to attack from angry survivors. One other tidbit: Since Milosevic would be subject to the penal laws of the yet-to-be-determined country where he would serve his sentence, it's conceivable (if unlikely) he would be eligible for parole. The U.N.'s temporary Rwanda tribunal also eschews the death penalty. So: A Rwandan who commits capital murder is subject to execution in a Rwandan court, but the fiend who orders the massacre of thousands of Rwandans faces, at worst, a life sentence. Some message for the bloodthirsty: If you want to kill, kill a lot of people, then call it ethnic cleansing. If you're lucky, you'll face the U.N.'s idea of justice.