Serb case highlights slow pace of int'l justice

AP News
Posted: Mar 07, 2011 1:55 PM
Serb case highlights slow pace of int'l justice

After spending eight years in the custody of a U.N. war crimes tribunal, Serb nationalist Vojislav Seselj asked U.N. judges to acquit him Monday, calling the prosecution case against him a politically motivated "fiasco."

Despite his long years in a cell, Seselj's trial over his alleged involvement in inciting the persecution of Muslims, Croats and other minorities in Bosnia and Croatia has only reached the halfway point with the end of the prosecution case.

While Seselj himself is to blame for many delays, seemingly endless trials are not unique to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, created in 1993 and due to go out of existence soon.

They highlight a question that has long dogged international courts, one of which is now mulling a possible indictment against Libya's leader Moammar Gadhafi: are they capable of delivering swift justice?

Adrian Fulford, a senior judge at the International Criminal Court, has said time-sapping delays at all international courts are making cases, "very slow moving: a graceful minuet rather than a greyhound race."

Fulford is presiding over the first trial at the ICC, the world's first permanent war crimes court. It was supposed to be a compact case focusing on allegations that Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga recruited and used child soldiers in his country's brutal civil war. The trial started more than two years ago, has faced repeated interruptions and has no end in sight.

"I am convinced that delays and significantly extended proceedings are the single most corrosive problem for the ICC. They arguably stretch the notion of a fair trial, to say nothing of our limited resources," Fulford told a conference two months ago.

Another lengthy war crimes trial is the case against former Liberian President Charles Taylor at the Special Court for Sierra Leone. Judges ruled Monday that Taylor's lawyer can present his 600-page summation this week _ 3 1/2 years after his trial began. It was unclear when a verdict would be delivered.

A clear example of justice delayed _ and even denied _ is Slobodan Milosevic's four-year genocide trial, which was aborted when he died of a heart attack in 2006.

And the case of Milosevic's one-time ally, Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, threatens to take even longer. Karadzic faces an 11-count indictment, featuring two charges of genocide, covering atrocities from the outbreak of the Bosnian war in 1992 until its bloody climax in 1995.

Amsterdam University international law Prof. Goran Sluiter said the delays in many of the trials, particularly at the Yugoslav tribunal, are caused by defendants insisting on acting as their own attorneys in court.

Like Seselj, Milosevic defended himself, and so is Karadzic, whose trial started in 2009 and is expected to last at least until 2014.

"The court has problems dealing with these difficult accused," Sluiter said. "It is not good court management."

But Sluiter said it is unavoidable that international cases will be drawn out, because they deal with widespread, serious crimes often committed by senior political or military leaders.

"Even in a perfect system with well-behaved accused," trials still will take "far longer than even the most complex domestic trials," he said.

Sluiter and other analysts say part of the reason cases can drag on so long is that suspects in international courts cannot appeal against their lengthy detentions to an outside court, such as the European Court of Human Rights.

"In the Netherlands, we are in problems if we don't finish within two years," Sluiter said. "But there is nothing of the sort at international level.

Compounding the problems of slow trials at the ICC is the groundbreaking involvement of victims _ a first in international law. Through lawyers, victims can put questions to witnesses and seek compensation at the end of the case.

"You have to have far more time to give them meaningful participation," Sluiter said.

Investigations at the ICC also can take years, though Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo showed last week that he can work swiftly, announcing that he was opening an investigation into possible crimes against humanity by Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi just days after the Security Council called for a probe.

But even if Gadhafi is indicted in coming weeks or months, the court will run into another problem common to all international tribunals: how do you arrest and bring the suspect to court?

Karadzic was on the run for more than 12 years before being arrested in 2008 and his military chief Gen. Ratko Mladic is still a fugitive.