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The Big Question: Should Radovan Karadzic be forced to turn up for his own trial?

Why are we asking this now?

Yesterday, for the second day running, Radovan Karadzic failed to show up for his trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague, where he is accused on two counts of genocide and nine other charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. His explanation was that he had not yet had time to prepare for the trial. He had given the judges prior warning that he was not ready: on 22 October he said, "As soon as I am prepared, I will be happy to inform the trial chamber a few weeks in advance."

Is there any justification in Karadzic's claim to have had inadequate time to prepare?

The trial will undoubtedly be a complex one, covering such tragic events as the siege of Sarajevo, which Mr Karadzic directed and in which 10,000 people died, and the massacre of Srebrenica, in which more than 7,000 Bosnian Muslim men were slaughtered in cold blood, as well as many acts of ethnic cleansing. Karadzic himself has claimed that more than a million pages of testimony will have to be considered. But the defendant has already had more than a year to get ready, and the case has deliberately been made less complex than that of Slobodan Milosevic, which consisted of 66 separate charges.

So why can't they wait until he has done his homework?

Because the court cannot afford to put itself at the mercy of this man's whims, particularly after being made a fool of by former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic during his six-year trial in the same court, which ended without a verdict when he died of a heart attack in his cell. The chief judge on the bench, O-Gon Kwon, was also on the bench that heard the Milosevic case and is doing all he can to avoid the problems that Milosevic exploited.

Does Karadzic's behaviour come as a surprise?

Not really. He has been causing problems for the court ever since the warrant was issued for his arrest. He evaded the court's attentions for 13 years after the end of the war in Bosnia, allegedly with the complicity of the highest figures in the Serbian government in Belgrade, despite incessant searches by Nato forces. When he was finally arrested in July 2008, disguised as an alternative healer called Dragan David Babic, he immediately claimed that he had been illegally detained.

When he first appeared before the ICTY at the Hague on 31 July 2008 he maintained that the judge was biased against him. At his second appearance before a different judge a month later he refused to enter a plea, while maintaining that he was innocent of all the charges against him. The court, following its rules, duly entered not guilty pleas for all charges.

He showed up regularly at the pre-trial hearings, but maintains that Richard Holbrooke, the American envoy who concluded the peace deal at Dayton, Ohio that brought the Bosnian war to an end, guaranteed him legal immunity on condition that Karadzic stay out of public life – a claim Mr Holbrooke has denied. For its part the court says that even if such a deal existed, it would not have legal validity.

There is no reason to suppose that that Mr Karadzic feels any remorse for his alleged crimes, or even that he regards them as crimes. All his actions to date suggest that his unspoken aim is to undermine the legitimacy of the court, make fools of prosecutors and judges, and stoke his semi-mythical reputation among his remaining hard-core fans back home.

Can the trial continue in his absence?

The prosecution will continue with their case, which began yesterday when Prosecutor Alan Tieger told the court that Karadzic had "harnessed the forces of nationalism, hatred and fear to pursue his vision of an ethnically segregated Bosnia". Once their opening statement is finished, probably some time next week, the three-judge panel will decide how to proceed. The full presentation of the prosecution's case may take until next year.

What options are open to the judges?

Mr Karadzic, like Milosevic before him, has opted to defend himself. So either the court will have to accede to his wishes regarding the trial's timing, thereby (it can be argued) fatally losing face, or it can impose court-appointed counsel. The latter course would immediately cause a delay of several months while the new defence team got up to speed on the brief. There is also the danger of Karadzic taking another leaf out of Milosevic's book by refusing to recognise or have any dealings with them – another way of attacking the trial's appearance of legitimacy.

In Milosevic's case the two lawyers offered to resign after it became clear that Milosevic was committed to snubbing them, but the court refused to let them do so. Karadzic's non-cooperation with any court-appointed lawyers could also undermine the trial because some of the evidence against him is expected to come from the defendant himself, in the form of telephone intercepts and transcripts of his speeches to Bosnian Serb lawmakers during the war. A stubborn refusal by Karadzic to co-operate would prevent these aspects of the case being examined by the court.

Can the court afford to play a waiting game with Karadzic?

Not indefinitely. The ICTY was set up by UN Security Council as an ad hoc tribunal and is expected to wind up when its work on war crimes stemming from the Yugoslavian conflicts is done. Two fugitives remain at large, one of them Ratko Mladic, the commander of the Bosnian Serb army and Karadzic's close colleague, but excepting those Karadzic's is one of the last big trials the court is expected to hear. It is expected to finish in 2012.

Given the court's record with Milosevic and Karadzic, can it claim any successes?

Out of the spotlight, the court's bread-and-butter work goes on: 23 other alleged war criminals are currently on trial, while a further 60 have already been sentenced. But it has struggled to gain the sort of clear-cut results against the most prominent actors in the Yugoslav wars which it was set up to achieve.

The only high-profile accused to have pleaded guilty of genocide and war crimes before the court was Biljana Plavsic, the distinguished Bosnian Serb biologist whose views on ethnic cleansing were said to be extreme even by Karadzic himself, and who was famously photographed stepping over a dead Muslim to embrace Arkan, the notorious Serbian terrorist.

By pleading guilty Plavsic obtained a lighter sentence than she would otherwise have received – but after her conviction she told an interviewer that she had only pleaded guilty because she was unable to find witnesses to substantiate her defence. By coincidence she was released from jail yesterday.

Would it break the impasse if the court appointed defence lawyers?


* They would present a full and fair defence of Karadzic on the basis of the evidence

* They would stick to the alleged crimes and avoid flying off at time-wasting tangents

* They might obtain the co-operation of former Karadzic colleagues such as Biljana Plavsic


* Because of the amount of evidence it would be months before the trial could re-start

* Karadzic might refuse to accept them, finding ways to delay the trial even further

* The clear demonstration of guilt for which the court was set up would be frustrated