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January|February 2006
Tribunal on Trial David Bosco
A Court in a Storm Aaron Kuriloff
To Have and Hold a Green Card Melissa Nann Burke
A Fix for Junkies Jay Dixit
Setback in Stone Collin Campbell
The Prudent Jurist By William H. Simon
A Wink and a Nod By Len Costa

Tribunal on Trial

A new war crimes court in Sarajevo struggles to find its way.

David Bosco

BAKIRA HASECIC ARRIVED LATE TO THE COURTROOM IN SARAJEVO, but her entrance was muffled by the drilling that echoed from down the hall. In the still unfinished building of the State Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the hearing room was packed with local reporters and observers, and Hasecic, a middle-aged woman and rape victim who has organized one of Bosnia's most active victims' rights coalitions, couldn't find a seat. A court deputy finally located a spot for her next to a family in the front row. As the hearing began, it became clear that Hasecic was seated beside the family of Boban Simsic, a Serb on trial for crimes against humanity.

Behind Simsic is a long and growing line of defendants awaiting trial in the court, which was established last year to try high-level war crimes committed during Bosnia's three-and-a-half-year war among Serbs, Muslims, and Croats. Some of the cases, like his, have been plucked from the Bosnian lower courts because of their complexity or sensitivity. Others have arrived from The Hague, home to an international tribunal created by the United Nations in 1993 to try war criminals from the former Yugoslavia. Intent on wrapping up the tribunal's work, which has consumed more than $800 million and a dozen years, the U.N. and donors like the United States, the European Union, and Japan have pledged more than $20 million to help the Bosnian court get started. In addition to covering the salaries of the court's employees, the money helped build the court, a high-security detention center, and safe houses for victims who travel to Sarajevo to testify.

Two weeks before Simsic's recent hearing, Radovan Stankovic, the first detainee sent back from The Hague, arrived at Sarajevo's airport. Stankovic had fought his transfer at every turn. At one point, he stood up before the tribunal in The Hague and demanded to know how he could get a fair trial from "mujahideen judges" in Bosnia. He feared that ethnic bias by Croats and Muslims against Serbs would pervade a Bosnian court—a concern shared by many of his fellow Serbs a decade after the war. To ease these concerns, international judges, currently from the U.S. and Europe, will participate in every war crimes case for the first five years of the court's operation. Experienced foreign lawyers are assisting the prosecution and defense.

Yet major issues of trial procedure remain murky, and the court's standing in the divided country is fragile. Wary of prolonged detentions, Bosnian lawmakers require courts to complete all criminal trials within a year, an almost impossible mandate in many war crimes cases; Slobodan Milosevic's trial at The Hague, bogged down as he conducts his own meandering defense, is in its fourth year. The tribunal's influence permeates the new court. The Hague's cases are valid precedent and it has amassed a wealth of evidence and testimony on war crimes in the country. But much of that information is confidential, and procedures for sharing information between the courts are vague. With the tribunal peering over its shoulder, the Bosnian court is struggling to find its way.

ANTICIPATION AND ANXIETY ABOUT THE FLEDGLING COURT are now focused on the case of Simsic, a barrel-chested 38-year-old with close-cropped sandy hair. He strode into court carrying himself like the police officer he was until January, when he surrendered to authorities. He stands accused of helping a Serb paramilitary force called the "White Eagles" cleanse the town of Visegrad of its Muslims in the spring and summer of 1992. Before the war, Visegrad was 60 percent Muslim. By the time the White Eagles finished, it was almost entirely Serb. According to the indictment, Simsic killed and raped Muslims from nearby villages, leaving their bodies in the Drina River. At one point, it alleges, he and other armed Serbs told Muslim women to hand over money and jewelry if they wanted to see their husbands and sons alive again.

Though it is only a two-hour drive from the court, Visegrad seemed very far away as the three judges assigned to the case filed onto a raised dais and began the hearing. The judges—one Bosnian, another American, and the third Belgian—had scarcely warmed their seats when Simsic's lawyer rose to demand a six-month delay—his second such request in as many months. Without access to sealed files from related cases in The Hague (the tribunal has already investigated several Serbs from Visegrad), he could not defend Simsic properly. Conducting a trial without giving him that access, the lawyer warned, would violate the European Convention on Human Rights.

In the front row, Simsic's wife and brother exchanged smiles. They were a stylish duo, she in a fur-lined jacket and he in a Dolce & Gabbana T-shirt. An hour into the hearing, as the wrangling continued, Bakira Hasecic turned and faced Simsic's wife. "You will wait a long time before you see him again," she hissed, nodding toward the defendant. "Did you spend all the money you stole?" Simsic's wife stared back and then motioned to a court deputy. After a brief consultation with the two women, the deputy moved Hasecic to another seat.

It took two hours for the judges to grant a one-month delay in the trial so that the defense team could do additional research. In the meantime, they ordered that testimony begin. And so after hours of waiting, the first witness—a stocky, white-haired Bosnian Muslim named Nail Ramic—told his story. He testified that he had known Simsic for decades. When hostilities broke out in April 1992, Ramic fled into the forest near the town, where he hid for almost three months. Eventually, he was hunted down and brought to a local school, which had been converted into a prison camp. From then on, he said, Simsic singled him out for abuse. During one beating in a corridor of the school, Ramic heard a voice he recognized as Simsic's telling him, "I am your god and master." Ramic then described a perverse game of basketball in which his persecutors took shots at the basket as he stood under it. As the witness spoke, he looked over at the family members, who now sat stone-faced.

Perhaps anticipating a damaging cross-examination, the prosecutor pushed Ramic to reconcile some discrepancies between his account and his earlier written testimony. The witness flushed and grew combative as the prosecutor read from his previous statements and asked a number of times, "Was Simsic shooting baskets or just watching?" Simsic's wife smiled as Ramic's frustration mounted and he began to stammer. A red light on the courtroom wall flashed repeatedly as the two English-language interpreters working in an adjoining booth signaled that they were having trouble keeping up.

The cross-examination never came. Simsic's attorney told the court that it would be futile to question the witness before he could gather additional material. The judges appeared exasperated, and the prosecutor leaped out of his seat to protest the request. Witnesses cannot be kept on hold indefinitely, he reminded the court. He explained that several rape victims had come to the court that day to testify. But by that point, it was the end of the day, and Simsic's lawyer was unyielding. Reluctantly, the presiding judge ended the hearing.

An hour later, Bakira Hasecic sat in a greasy restaurant close to the court and smoked a cigarette. The court's first day of trial did not bode well—a "catastrophe," she called it. The smirking of Simsic's wife was "uncontrollably degrading," she said, and Hasecic worried that his lawyer's stalling tactics would run out the one-year clock. She would have been comforted to hear her concern shared by Richard Gebelein, the American judge on the case. "If we don't get him tried by next July, he has to be released," he said the next day at the courthouse, "and chances are he's not going to want to stick around."


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