The Sorry Acquittal of Vojislav Seselj

Last week a Trial Chamber of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia acquitted Vojislav Seselj, an ultra-nationalist Serb politician, for crimes committed in Croatia, Bosnia and even Serbia itself. It did so by 2 votes to 1. Readers will already be familiar with the disaster that was the Seselj trial, which is now further compounded by the judicial fiasco that is the trial judgment. Fiasco is in fact the word used by the presiding French judge, Jean-Claude Antonetti, to describe the case in the conclusion of his profoundly dilettantish 500-page concurring opinion. This concurrence is a perfect sequel to his equally unreadable 600-page doozy in the Prlic case, and he uses it to blame everybody but himself for everything that went wrong in the case which is, well, everything. The judgment (in French) is here, as is the dissenting opinion of Judge Lattanzi (‘dissenting’ is not a strong enough word, as she herself says); the summaries of the judgment and the dissent in English are here and here.

Corax, Danas 4.4.2016.

There are so many problems with this judgment that it’s hard to know where to start, so let me paint you the big picture. The main issue is not with the acquittal, which may or may not be the appropriate result, but with how that result was reached. The entire judgment is a reductionist dismissal of the case presented by the prosecution, which is always taken as ungenerously as is humanly possible, while at the same time castigating the prosecution (without any hint of self-irony) for presenting a reductionist version of the complex reality of the wars of the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia.


ICTY Karadzic and Seselj Trial Judgments Due

This International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia is due to pronounce its trial judgments in two important cases, against Radovan Karadzic, the former political leader of the Bosnian Serbs, on Thursday 24 March, and against Vojislav Seselj, the ultra-nationalist leader of the Serbian Radical Party, on 31 March. The Karadzic case is of course more important by far than the Seselj one, with (since Milosevic’s passing) Karadzic being the highest-ranked defendant with respect to atrocities committed during the Bosnian war. For our earlier coverage of the two cases, see here and here.

As I’ve recently explained elsewhere, the outcome of the Karadzic case is hardly in doubt – he will be convicted. The only question is what exactly for. He will also get a very long sentence, which will because of his age be tantamount to life imprisonment even if he doesn’t get that formally. Karadzic’s legal advisor, the excellent Peter Robinson (whom we’ve had in Nottingham last week for a seminar), is quite open about getting ready for an appeal (see Guardian report here). There is, in other words, not all that much suspense about what’s going to happen come Thursday, and the political reactions to the conviction in the former Yugoslavia are also equally predictable.

That said, what are the points to watch for in the judgment which may be of some genuine novelty? First, unlike with the crime base, which was already clarified in numerous ICTY judgments, it will be interesting to see what the Trial Chamber finds with respect to Karadzic’s individual guilt – what did he exactly know and when, what did he intend, and what specific joint criminal enterprise (JCE) was he a part of? This will be of particular relevance to the 1995 Srebrenica genocide – Karadzic certainly didn’t do anything to punish the perpetrators after the fact, but it’s important to see (or what the prosecution was able to prove about) what he knew  before the genocide started and while it was underway.

Second, Karadzic is charged with genocide not only in Srebrenica, but also in several other Bosnian municipalities, as is the Bosnian Serb general, Ratko Mladic, whose trial is still underway. In other cases the ICTY could find genocide ‘only’ in Srebrenica, with atrocities elsewhere being qualified as war crimes or crimes against humanity. This Trial Chamber has actually already found that the prosecution wasn’t able to meet the burden of proving genocide outside Srebrenica after a rule 98bis ‘no case to answer’ motion upon the conclusion of the prosecution’s case. This decision was later reversed on appeal, but it seems unlikely that the same Trial Chamber will find genocide to have now been proven to the higher beyond a reasonable doubt standard, except in Srebrenica. The Chamber’s finding will however be of great political relevance in the region, because of the particular corrosive potency of the word genocide and its impact on the competitive victimhood of the various groups, and will also be of relevance for the Mladic case. While I therefore expect acquittal for genocide in non-Srebrenica municipalities, it remains to be seen whether that will survive an appeal before the Mechanism, where the whole thing will be revisited.

Finally, as for Seselj the outcome there is far less certain, but expecting a conviction that would cover the time he already spent in detention would not be unreasonable. That case is more notable for its disastrous mismanagement and the consequent public relations nightmare than for anything else. Seselj is now in Serbia and has refused to go back to the Hague for the pronouncement of the judgment. The Serbian authorities (led by his erstwhile party comrades) similarly refused (if with a bit more diplomatic obfuscation) to arrest him and send him to the ICTY, because of the damage this could cause them in an election year. Three of Seselj’s advisers have been charged with contempt by the ICTY and they too have not been sent to the Hague, for the same basic reason. The Serbian authorities are essentially exploiting the ICTY’s impending closure and betting (probably correctly) that this lack of cooperation will not cause them significant political problems internationally.

An interesting couple of weeks ahead for the Tribunal – we will have more coverage as the events unfold.

Breaking: Judge Harhoff Disqualified from the Seselj Case

I’ve just been informed by a reliable source that the special ICTY chamber appointed to hear Seselj’s motion to recuse Judge Harhoff from his case for appearance of bias has accepted the motion. (This is of course one more chapter in the continuing Meron/Harhoff saga). That means that the Seselj case is probably going bust, as no stand-by judge was sitting in who could replace Harhoff. More to follow, once the decision is made public.

UPDATE: The decision is now officially available here. The Chamber split 2 to 1, Judges Moloto and Hall in favour, Judge Liu vigorously dissenting, finding that there was an appearance of bias. Money quote:

13. By referring to a “set practice” of convicting accused persons without reference to an evaluation of the evidence in each individual case, the Majority, Judge Liu dissenting, considers that there are grounds for concluding that a reasonable observer, properly informed, would reasonably apprehend bias on the part of Judge Harhoff in favour of conviction. This includes for the purposes of the present case. This appearance of bias is further compounded by Judge Harhoff’s statement that he is confronted by a professional and moral dilemma, which in the view of the Majority, is a clear reference to his difficulty in applying the current jurisprudence of the Tribunal. In the circumstances, the Majority considers that the Letter, when read as a whole, rebuts the presumption of impartiality. … 14. The Majority, Judge Liu dissenting, finds that in the Letter Judge Harhoff has demonstrated a bias in favour of conviction such that a reasonable observer properly informed would reasonably apprehend bias.

We’ll see what this means for the Seselj case and possibly other cases before the ICTY in which Judge Harhoff was involved. Dov Jacobs has more commentary here and here. For my part, the decision does seem to be based on a rather cursory and acontextual assessement of the Harhoff letter, as Judge Liu points out in his dissent, and is moreover not clear as to whether Harhoff is being disqualified for apparent or actual bias. And to the extent that Judge Harhoff had any difficulties in applying the current jurisprudence of the Tribunal (assuming that the jurisprudence he takes issue with would actually be central to the Seselj case), one assumes that any errors of law he made could be corrected on appeal.

As for Seselj, the trial itself has been badly mismanaged almost from the very start. Seselj himself surrendered to the ICTY some 10 years ago, on the eve of the assassination of the first democratically elected prime minister of Serbia, Zoran Djindjic, by a cabal of secret police, mafia and war criminal types, of which Seselj probably had some advance knowledge. From the very get go he set out to ‘destroy’ the Tribunal, inter alia by representing himself and being disruptive to the absolute maximum. When the Trial Chamber originally assigned to his case decided to appoint counsel and deny him self-representation, Seselj went on a hunger strike. Fearing the potential fallout from Seselj dying in custody after the death of Milosevic, the Appeals Chamber made an essentially political decision to reverse the appointment of counsel and change the Trial Chamber that would hear the case, adopting an absolutist position on self-representation that is certainly not warranted by human rights considerations (note that had Seselj been tried in Serbia itself, he would have to have been represented by counsel, as is the case in many other European jurisdictions in serious cases).

The presiding judge of the newly assigned Trial Chamber went on to demonstrate little evidence of competence, with Seselj more or less doing as he pleased in the courtroom, despite several prosecutions and convictions for contempt of Tribunal. The trial closed in March 2012, and the issuance of the judgment was scheduled for 30 October 2013. In other words, it took a year and a half to draft the trial judgment in what is on any objective account a mid-range, not particularly demanding case. And now that trial judgment might never be issued because of the whole Harhoff affair – I at least see no way of salvaging the trial that would not be unfair towards Seselj. Even if Seselj had been convicted, it is likely that the sentence he would get would be absorbed by the 10 years he spent in detention on remand. In any event Seselj will soon be returning to Belgrade in triumph. He may not have ‘destroyed’ the Tribunal, but he was certainly happy to watch it destroy itself.

ICTY Trial Chamber Suspends Seselj Trial

The most poorly run trial ever before the ICTY – the high profile proceedings against the ultra-nationalist Serbian leader Vojislav Seselj – has entered into what I can only call its metastasis. AP reports that today the Trial Chamber, by 2 votes to 1 (presiding Judge Antonetti dissenting), decided to adjourn the trial indefinitely, for fears that the integrity of the proceedings has been compromised. The most serious allegations involve witness intimidation by Seselj’s associates – indeed, Seselj himself has recently been charged with contempt of Tribunal for disclosed the identity of a witness in the most recent, 1000 page instalment in his endless, Mein Kampf-like book series that he (supposedly) writes while in detention.

The trial itself has truly devolved into a travesty, with the presiding judge in particular showing an incredible lack of ability to manage the self-representing Seselj. In short, Seselj was basically allowed to run his own trial. That Seselj himself is probably one of the most obnoxious and irritating human beings in all of creation is really not an excuse for the amount of incompetence that has been displayed at the ICTY (see generally A. Zahar, ‘Legal Aid, Self-Representation and the Crisis at The Hague Tribunal’, (2008) 19 Criminal Law Forum 241; G. Sluiter, ‘Compromising the Authority of International Criminal Justice–How Vojislav Šešelj Runs His Trial’, (2007) 5 Journal of International Criminal Justice 529)

There is for now no indication how the trial might find its way out of limbo. I won’t even try to explain what kind of impact these developments can have on the already abysmally poor public perception of the ICTY in the Balkans, Serbia in particular. (Not to mention the fact that poor Serbia (i.e. me; self-pity is the best kind of pity) is going to have to suffer through Seselj’s return to the country, probably sooner rather than later, and through his boasting that he actually managed to defeat the Tribunal.)  What is fairly certain is that no-one working in the ICTY – least of all the judges – will actually bear any consequences for this fiasco.

An Eventful Day in The Hague: Channeling Socrates and Goering

Yesterday the ICTY delivered its very final appeals judgment, in the case of Prlic et al, finding all of the defendants – political and military leaders of Bosnian Croats – guilty of crimes against Bosnian Muslims, and affirming the sentences passed on them by the trial chamber (summary; judgment). Yesterday, also, one of the defendants in the case, Slobodan Praljak, a general during the Bosnian conflict but by formal training a rather eclectic individual with degrees in philosophy, sociology, and theatre from the University of Zagreb, committed suicide in the courtroom. He did so by standing up in the dock, loudly declaiming to the judges that: “Slobodan Praljak is not a war criminal and I reject your judgment with contempt” [yes he did that very nice thing of referring to himself in the third person], and then drinking a vial of poison in full view of the (visibly shocked) judges, and the cameras. The video of this dramatic one-upmanship of Socrates and Hermann Goering, the first (and hopefully last) for an international courtroom, is here.

Like in the Mladic case, the reaction to the judgment was predictably nationalist and predictably depressing. The prime minister of Croatia – a member state of the EU – completely rejected the judgment, saying that it constituted a grave moral injustice against the defendants and the Croatian people as a whole. So did the Croat member (and current chairman) of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, who stated that Praljak was prepared to sacrifice his very life to show to the world and to a political court that he was in fact innocent. This martyrdom narrative is now bound to feed Croat nationalism for a long, long time. The principal reason for all this ire is not so much the conviction as such, but the Appeals Chamber’s confirmation of the finding at trial that the defendants participated in a joint criminal enterprise together with leaders from Croatia, including President Tudjman, whose purpose was to consolidate a Croat entity in Bosnia through the ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims. This is also coupled with the findings about Croatia’s control over Bosnian Croat forces and the characterization of the armed conflict as international, i.e. inter-state, in nature.

What of the judgment more generally? It is very long (more than 1400 pages), longer than most ICTY appeals judgments. This is largely the product of numerous problems, errors in law and reasoning in the trial judgment – itself caused to no small degree by the peculiarities of the presiding trial judge (remember the Seselj acquittal? Yes, that guy.). Yet despite the many problems, and reversals on numerous points, the Appeals Chamber essentially endorsed the basic factual and culpability account of the trial judgment, saying that the totality of the crimes for which the defendants have been convicted suffices for the sentences they have been given. Throughout its judgment the Appeals Chamber is in a constructive, repair mode in relation to the trial judgment, especially when compared to the hypercritical deconstructivism in the Gotovina judgment.

There are many legally interesting issues in the case of broader import. First, the Chamber’s approach to the classification of the armed conflict in Bosnia and the scope of application of the Geneva Conventions. Second, similarly, the Chamber’s application of the law of occupation, and its finding that Croatia was occupying parts of Bosnia through its proxies. Third, and most controversially, its reversal of the majority trial chamber finding that the destruction of the Old Bridge (Stari Most) in Mostar constituted a war crime of wanton destruction of property not justified by military necessity. Judge Pocar dissented on this point very energetically. Essentially the Chamber found that (1) the bridge was a military objective, as it was being used by Bosnian Muslim forces; (2) therefore the destruction of the bridge could not be ‘wanton’, even if it was disproportionate in its impact on the civilian population under IHL; (3) the Trial Chamber found no other property destroyed in this event; (4) therefore an element of the crime was missing or unproved. The judgment thus does not directly engage with the ‘pure’ IHL proportionality question, as the majority and dissent did at trial. Finally, the analysis of JCE is very dense and fact-specific; one particularly interesting set of issues dealt with the inconsistent terminology used in the French original of the trial judgment and its impact on the relevant mens rea standard.

ICTY Due to Render Mladic Trial Judgment

The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia will tomorrow render its very final trial judgment, in one of its most important cases, that of Ratko Mladic, the commander of the army of the Bosnian Serbs during the conflict in Bosnia. As with the case of Radovan Karadzic, the wartime president of the Bosnian Serb republic, there are few unknowns in Mladic’s case – he will be convicted, and he will spend the remainder of his life in prison, whether his sentence is formally that of life imprisonment or not (for our coverage of the Karadzic judgment see here, here and here). Let me nonetheless address two of the remaining uncertainties, and one clear certainty.

The first count of the indictment charges Mladic with genocide in several Bosnian municipalities in 1992; the second charges him with genocide in Srebrenica in 1995. And it is on the former that Mladic actually has a realistic chance – even a likelihood – of being acquitted. This is exactly what happened with Karadzic, and the ICTY has ‘only’ been able to find genocide in Srebrenica, not in any of the other municipalities. This whole issue was also of great relevance to the botched attempt to revise the 2007 Bosnian Genocide judgment of the ICJ earlier this year. That said, while in the Karadzic case the Trial Chamber deciding on a rule 98 bis motion originally found that Karadzic could not be convicted of genocide in the municipalities by a reasonable trier of fact – a finding later reversed by the Appeals Chamber – in Mladic the Trial Chamber’s rule 98 bis decision found that the prosecution did, in fact, make it out its initial evidentiary burden (see here, at p. 24). The possibility thus remains that the Mladic and Karadzic trial chambers will disagree on the existence of genocide outside Srebrenica; that possibility is relatively low, but it is not zero. The whole thing will in any event receive its judicial epilogue before the Appeals Chamber of the MICT.

Secondly, one difficulty with the Karadzic judgment was the factual 2:1 divide among the judges regarding the first shelling of the Markale marketplace during the siege of Sarajevo. As I explained in my Karadzic post:

[W]hen it comes to the siege of Sarajevo the Trial Chamber confirmed the overall picture of the terrorization of the civilian population as established in the ICTY’s previous cases, such as Galic. There is however one politically very big issue here – the two shellings of the Markale marketplace in Sarajevo, on 5 February 1994 and 28 August 1995, in which dozens of people were killed and injured. The standard Bosniak narrative is that the marketplace was deliberately shelled by the Bosnian Serb army to terrorize the civilian population; the standard Serb narrative is that the shellings were done by the Bosniaks themselves in order to demonize the Serbs and provoke an international military response (which the latter one did). The Trial Chamber found (starting at p. 1662) that both incidents were perpetrated by Bosnian Serbs. However, Judge Baird dissented (p. 2542 et seq.) with respect to the 5 February 1994 incident, finding that there was reasonable doubt that the Bosnian Serbs did not commit the attack. Clearly this opens the door for Karadzic to appeal (rightly or wrongly), but even more importantly the division in the Trial Chamber reinforces the divided realities lived by the different communities in Bosnia as well.

It will be interesting to see what the Mladic Trial Chamber decides on these two attacks.

Finally, one thing that is absolutely certain is how the trial judgment will be received in the former Yugoslavia. Again, absent massive judicial aneurysms Mladic is going to be convicted; there is no conceivable reality in which he walks from the courtroom tomorrow morning as a free man. That conviction will not, however, persuade any ethnic Serbs in Bosnia or Serbia who previously believed in his innocence that he is in fact guilty; rather, they will treat the judgment as yet another example of a Western conspiracy against the Serbs. For example, a 2011 public survey of the Serbian population commissioned by the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights found that 55% of ethnic Serbs thought that Mladic was not guilty of the crimes he was charged with by the ICTY, only 17% felt that he was guilty, and 28% did not know or did not want to give their opinion. I have no reason to believe that these results would be any different if the poll was conducted today (if anything they are probably worse), or that the trial judgment convicting Mladic would change anyone’s views. Similarly, if Mladic is – like Karadzic – acquitted on count 1, genocide in the municipalities, the negative reaction among Bosniak nationalists and victim groups is similarly going to be quite predictable.  (For more on this, see the series of articles I did on the impact of the ICTY and other criminal tribunals on local audiences – here, here and here).

That said, while the bottom line of the Mladic case is clear, there are bound to be various different legal and factual issues in the judgment that are worth exploring in more detail. We will have more coverage on the blog in the days to follow.

International Criminal Justice on the March?

March been a significant one for international criminal justice with a series of high profile judgments by the ICC and the ICTY. There has been the conviction of the former Vice President of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo, on the basis of superior responsibility, for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the Central African Republic. Then we have had the conviction of Radovan Karadzic, including for genocide (see Marko’s commentary here). We also have the Seselj judgment due at the ICTY. In addition, last week saw two ICC cases in which charges were confirmed by the pre-trial chamber (see here and here). Confirmation of charges involves a lower standard than conviction, with the requirement at confirmation being that there “is sufficient evidence to establish substantial grounds to believe” that the accused committed the crimes charged (Art. 61(7) of the ICC Statute) as opposed to proof beyond a reasonable doubt. However, confirmation is still a significant development and in one of those cases,  Prosecutor v. Ahmad Al Faqi, it appears that the accused will plead guilty to those charges.

What is significant about these cases is not so much the development of the law or jurisprudence but rather the sense that international criminal justice seems to be on the march in its task of speaking law/justice/truth to power. We have a judgment against a former Vice President of a state, against a leader of an entity claiming to be a state and the prosecution of parts of the leadership of non-state groups that have wreaked significant destruction and misery.

However, we have also had in March one domestic decision dealing with a serving head of state that both serves to remind those in power about the demands of international criminal justice but that also reminds us of the difficulties in the field. This is the decision of the South African Supreme Court of Appeal in the case relating to the failure of the South African government to arrest Sudanese President Bashir when he visited South Africa for the African Union Summit in June 2015 (see judgment here). (more…)

ICTY Convicts Radovan Karadzic

Yesterday the ICTY Trial Chamber convicted Radovan Karadzic, the wartime political leader of the Bosnian Serbs, for numerous crimes committed during the conflict and sentenced him to 40 years imprisonment. The (mammoth) trial judgment is here, standing at 2615 pages that not even Karadzic’s lawyers will read as a whole; the more accessible summary is here.

The end result is basically as I predicted it will be a couple of days ago – Karadzic got acquitted for genocide in Bosnian municipalities other than Srebrenica, and got convicted for everything else, including the Srebrenica genocide. The sentence is effectively life; he could be eligible for provisional release after serving 2/3 of his sentence, which would (counting the 7 years and 8 months he already spent in detention) mean he would have to spend some 19 more years in prison – but if he lives into his nineties he may get provisionally released, assuming of course that the sentence is affirmed on appeal and that he does not eventually get released on compassionate grounds.

On the vast majority of issues the Trial Chamber was unanimous (I’ll come to points of dissent later on), and that is a very good thing. All in all the judgment is basically exactly what it should have been, although the political reactions in the region are also exactly what one might have expected – while many Bosniaks welcomed the conviction they also decried the acquittal for genocide outside Srebrenica, whereas the current Bosnian Serb president has decried the judgment as yet another example of the ICTY’s anti-Serb bias. So far so predictable. That said, I will spend the remainder of this post on looking at some of the more interesting parts of the judgment, based on a very quick skim read.


The (Aborted) Start of the Karadzic Trial

The trial of Radovan Karadzic at the ICTY was supposed to begin this morning, but, true to his word, Karadzic decided to boycott the trial because he was allegedly not given enough time for preparation. In reality, however, it has been more than a year and three months since his transfer to the Hague – time that he spent wastefully, mainly by bombarding the Tribunal, states, and the public with his theories regarding an alleged immunity deal with Richard Holbrooke, that he claimed was somehow supposedly binding on the Tribunal (for our earlier coverage, see here, and for some discussion see here). The proceedings will resume Tuesday afternoon, and we shall see what the judges make of it.

That the trial is off to a rather bumpy start is of course entirely the Tribunal’s own fault – not because it denied Karadzic adequate time for preparation, but because it allowed him to represent himself in the first place. The ICTY’s overly generous (to put it mildly) approach to self-representation, first in the Milosevic and then in the Seselj cases (see more here), quite simply allowed determined defendants to turn the courtroom into a circus. It is not just deeply flawed legally, practically, and symbolically – it also in my view rests on a mistaken psychological assumption: that the defendants in question actually wish to persuade the judges of their innocence.

But high-ranking defendants want no such thing. It is not the judges who are their intended audience – they perform for the history books, and for those same besotted masses whom they once led and whose fate they still want to control. They wish to validate their own heroic self-image; the courtroom is only their final stage, and the judges a part of the decor. They do so not just because of the narcissistic, prima donna personality that is almost invariably a part of the pathological mental make-up of a successful politician/war criminal. Rather, they are in a sense perfectly rational in their irrationality. That they have nothing to gain by having counsel defend them to the best of their ability is plain – either they already know that they are guilty, or they believe that there’s a conspiracy out to get them, of which the judges naturally form part.