War Crimes Trials Begin | The Canadian Encyclopedia


War Crimes Trials Begin

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on May 20, 1996.  Partner content is not updated.

Childhood friends say they could always identify Dusan Tadic by his walk. The short but fit "Dule" or "Dusko" Tadic, as he was also known in his northwest Bosnian home town of Kozarac, had a distinctive swagger that advertised his black belt expertise in karate.

War Crimes Trials Begin

Childhood friends say they could always identify Dusan Tadic by his walk. The short but fit "Dule" or "Dusko" Tadic, as he was also known in his northwest Bosnian home town of Kozarac, had a distinctive swagger that advertised his black belt expertise in karate. "He was explosive, fearless, always ready for a fight," recalled Ahmed Kulenovic, a Muslim and boyhood friend of the now-40-year-old Serb. There was certainly no sign of swagger in the Dusan Tadic who settled almost listlessly into the blue chair in the prisoner's dock at The Hague's international war crimes tribunal last week, charged with crimes against humanity. The indictment against him is a nauseating compendium of sadism and murder committed against Muslim and Croat civilians in 1992. His lawyer does not dispute that "unspeakable crimes were committed," but he insists that Tadic has been mistaken for the real criminal. The victims say they know their torturer - some even grew up with him in Kozarac. The question of identity is the hinge upon which justice will swing.

In a war that killed an estimated 250,000 civilians between 1991 and the signing of last fall's Dayton peace accord, Tadic seems, to some, a minor entry in the gallery of bestial killers. He is accused of murdering more than 30 Muslims and Croats in and around the grim Omarska concentration camp, and of mistreating dozens of others in depraved acts ranging from sexual assault to sexual mutilation. Even so, Tadic is an unlikely choice for the notoriety of becoming the first accused war criminal to face trial since the Nuremberg and Tokyo prosecutors closed their books on the Second World War. Bosnia teems with men who employed violence and terror in pursuit of their political aim: a homeland purified of all other ethnic and religious groups. The most notorious remain at large, still in command within their territorial haven - Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb "president," and Ratko Mladic, his top general. They are alleged to be plotters of genocide, the kind of men that Nuremberg prosecutor Robert Jackson implored the world to hunt down and convict. He argued that punishment could not stop with "petty crimes by little people," but must reach those who "set in motion great evil."

But Karadzic and Mladic are not in custody; Tadic is, one of just four alleged war criminals held by the tribunal. He was arrested by police in Germany, where he had fled with thousands of other Bosnian refugees in 1993. And the prosecutors at The Hague are using his case to establish the legal basis for trying others on their list of 57 alleged criminals (46 Serb, eight Croat, three Muslim). As a result, the Tadic trial got off to a clinical start last week, as prosecutors sought to establish that the Bosnian war was an international conflict, not a civil war, a distinction that would give the international community the right to mete out justice. The first expert to testify - a visibly nervous British specialist on the Balkans named James Gow - plodded through a short history lesson on the rise of Serbian nationalism in the 1990s. His testimony on the ethnic makeup of the Yugoslav army's officer corps was the equivalent of DNA evidence at a murder trial - arcane, but crucial to the charges of crimes against humanity. The prosecutors must prove that civilians were victimized on the basis of race or religion.

In Tadic's case, that means demonstrating a "systematic attack on the non-Serb population of Prijedor," said prosecutor Grant Niemann, referring to the battle-riven region near Tadic's home. Tadic himself was not a soldier. Reporters who investigated his background portray him as a local bully who shifted from television repair to construction work before settling on running a café in his largely Muslim home town. He also became an active Serbian nationalist. His alleged crimes were committed during visits to three concentration camps in the area. He reportedly kicked inmates to death, stabbed others and in one particularly horrific case, threatened one man with death if he did not bite off the testicles of another prisoner. "Everyone in the camp was afraid of Dule," said a 56-year-old inmate at Omarska who claims that Tadic smashed his right leg with a police baton. The prosecution is expected to call as many as 150 witnesses, although their identities are being kept secret until they take the stand in order to shield them from intimidation.

But the camp's chilling horrors are widely and meticulously documented. Unlike Nazi death camps, where the killing was impersonal, the victims in places like Omarska often knew and recognized their tormentors. In some cases, they were on a first-name basis with those to whom they pleaded for their lives. Facing what is sure to be wrenching eye-to-eye confrontations with his accusers, Tadic maintains that he was nowhere near the camps on the days when the crimes were committed. Last week, his lawyer promised to produce witnesses to testify by satellite from Bosnia to corroborate those alibis.

Technology - from satellite testimony to satellite photo evidence - will play a major role in the trials. Anyone conditioned by history's black-and-white record of Nuremberg will find the courtroom in The Hague strikingly futuristic, bathed in white light with computer screens and video monitors glowing in front of every lawyer. Seated in front of a television-friendly, blue-toned backdrop, the three red- and black-robed judges look as though they are sitting on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. Television was not present at Nuremberg; here it is a witness, and it has already produced surreal moments. Exhibit 31, for example, was nothing more than the opening sequence of a BBC television documentary on the war, brief images juxtaposing Karadzic playing chess with news footage of tanks firing rounds. Proceedings sputtered when defence lawyers complained that their video screens were blank, and one judge suggested pressing different buttons with the tone of a helpful spouse trying to get the family VCR to work.

The tribunal cannot afford such hints of farce. Most Serbs already regard it as nothing more than proof of the international community's vilification of their side; many Muslims see the arrest of Muslim suspects as politically motivated attempts to deflect charges of bias. And the tribunal, with no police force of its own, must rely on local authorities to hand over suspects. With NATO forces in Bosnia unwilling to risk the consequences of arresting those higher up the command chain, including Karadzic and Mladic, the tribunal may never be able to serve notice to the world's warlords that crimes against humanity face an earthly judgment.

Meanwhile, the softening ground in northwestern Bosnia revealed more than two dozen skeletons at another suspected mass grave site last week, yet more evidence of great crimes, yet another reason to insist on justice.

Maclean's May 20, 1996