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War crimes tribunal: The Karadzic calamity

Hague prosecutors red-faced after Bosnian Serb leader rejects outdated charge sheet

The fugitive Radovan Karadzic had been on their most-wanted list for more than a decade, so you'd have thought that the international war crimes prosecutors would have had their case against the former Bosnian Serb leader honed, right down to the dotting of the last "i".

Instead, at Mr Karadzic's first hearing at The Hague last week, an eight-year-old indictment was presented, 25 pages that the court was informed would need updating. "I cannot give you a date, but it will be as soon as possible," said the chief prosecutor, Serge Brammertz.

True, Mr Brammertz only took over the role in January. But his predecessor, the bombastic Carla del Ponte, would tell anyone who'd listen that the only thing allowing Mr Karadzic to stay hidden was the Serbian government's apathy. So when the wheels of power began to turn in Belgrade, shouldn't the prosecutors have been making sure they were ready to roll with Case IT-95-5/18?

Mr Karadzic – shorn of the beard and topknot of his spiritual healer disguise, and a gaunter version of his swaggering military self – declined to enter a plea. "I would rather receive the new indictment... and have sufficient time to study it and then have my initial appearance for that and enter my plea," he said.

Antonio Cassese, a former chief judge at the court, said: "Of course it's a waste of time, and they should have amended the indictment before." However, streamlining the indictment and narrowing the scope of the prosecution would ultimately speed up the whole process, he added.

Speed is something of which the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal is acutely aware. Its biggest fish, Slobodan Milosevic, used every stalling tactic in the book to drag out his trial for four years, and died of a heart attack before a verdict could be reached.

Mr Karadzic – the alleged mastermind of the Srebrenica massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and the 43-month siege of Sarajevo – is to represent himself, as did his former mentor. But observers saw encouraging signs from Judge Alphons Orie that he would not allow this right to be used as a pretext for lengthy invective. He refused Mr Karadzic's request to read a four-page statement, but allowed him a two-minute summary. Mr Karadzic submitted his statement on Friday, repeating his claim that the US peacebroker, Richard Holbrooke, had cut a deal for him to go underground. But when that agreement began to unravel, Mr Holbrooke "switched to Plan B – the liquidation of Radovan Karadzic".