The Hague (AFP) – UN judges Monday begin hearing the two-day appeal of once-feared Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, fighting his conviction and 40-year jail term for war crimes and genocide in Bosnia’s bloody 1990s conflict.
Karadzic, 72, was sentenced to four decades behind bars in March 2016 for the bloodshed committed during the Balkan country’s three-year war which killed 100,000 people and left 2.2 million others homeless.
Once the most powerful Bosnian Serb leader, he became the highest ranked person to be convicted and sentenced at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), after former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic died while on trial.
But Karadzic’s lawyer Peter Robinson has challenged the conviction, saying he did not receive a fair trial as UN judges “presumed him guilty and then constructed a judgement to justify its presumption”.
Karadzic, a former psychiatrist, has denounced his conviction as unjust and appealed on 50 grounds, accusing judges of conducting a “political trial”.
At his verdict, the judges ruled the former strongman was “at the apex of political and military structures” of the Bosnian Serb leadership and “at the forefront of developing and promoting its ideologies”.
– ‘Campaign of terror’ –
Bosnian Serb and Serb leaders developed an “organised and systematic pattern of crimes committed against Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats,” the judges ruled, which included deportations, attacks on no-Serb populations, detentions and rapes.
The aim was “to spread terror among the civilian population,” the judges said, finding Karadzic guilty on 10 counts, including genocide for masterminding the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, deemed the worst bloodshed on European soil since World War II.
Almost 8,000 Muslim men and boys were slaughtered and their bodies dumped in mass graves after Bosnian Serb soldiers overran a protected “safe area” guarded by lightly-armed Dutch UN peacekeepers.
Judges also found him guilty of being behind the bitter 44-month siege of the Bosnian capital Sarajevo, in which 10,000 civilians died in a relentless campaign of sniping and shelling.
But Karadzic was acquitted on one count of genocide, with judges saying there was not enough evidence to prove “beyond reasonable doubt” that genocide was also committed in seven Bosnian towns and villages.
Prosecutors have also challenged the sentencing, saying the trial judges “erred in law and fact”.
Chief prosecutor Serge Brammertz listed four grounds of appeal including that the judges applying an “overly narrow definition of genocidal intent” and “improperly assessing aggravating and mitigating factors” when passing sentence.
He has asked appeals judges to “correct the trial chamber’s errors and increase Karadzic’s sentence to life imprisonment.”
– Marathon trial –
The hearing at the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals (MICT), which has taken over the ICTY’s functions after it closed last year, will start at 0920 GMT on Monday.
After a short introduction by presiding judge Theodor Meron, both Karadzic and prosecutors will have three hours for submissions and responses. On Tuesday, Karadzic will also have the chance to personally address the judges.
After years on the run, Karadzic was finally caught in 2008 on a Belgrade bus masquerading as a spiritual healer and disguised with a beard and glasses.
He was handed over to a tribunal in The Hague and his trial opened in October 2009. It ended in October 2014 after an exhausting 497 days in the courtroom, during which some 115,000 pages of documentary evidence were presented along with 586 witnesses.
Karadzic’s military alter-ego and former Bosnian Serb army commander Ratko Mladic was jailed for life in prison in November on similar charges.
Before his 2016 sentencing, Karadzic revealed he was so convinced he would walk free that he had already packed his bags.
And in Banja Luka, many see the court as “unjust and selective, basing itself on scenarios prepared in advance,” Bosnian Serb political leader Milorad Dodik told AFP.
“It has not succeeded in imposing itself as a place of justice where reconciliation can be achieved,” he added.