20 Feb 2009

The Serbian side of the Karadzic story

Dr Dragan Dabic, the erstwhile silver-bearded new age guru of Uri Gagarin Street,  New Belgrade (until he was exposed last summer as the former Bosnian Serb leader and alleged war criminal Radovan Karadzic), is back in Courtroom One at The Hague this afternoon at 14:15 local time.

His reappearance coincides with the reappearance in London of my old friend, Dragana Solomon, a Serbian investigative journalist with whom I’ve worked on Balkan stories over the years. She was Serbia Editor of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN), and is now the head of media in Serbia for The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

 “Sadly in Serbia, everyone’s much more concerned about how they’re going to survive the economic crisis that’s enveloped them than about what Karadzic gets up to,” she told me, to my surprise.  “It’s like Milosevic. Out of sight, out of mind,” she said.

Dragana Solomon in the C4 News newsroom

I say “to my surprise” because having covered the unmasking of Dr Dabic in Belgrade last July – and his subsequent removal to The Hague – I watched Serbian journalists, along with the rest of the world’s press, indulge in a feeding frenzy over the denouement of Europe’s biggest manhunt.

“No,” said Dragana, “they were only grabbed by the sensationalist, tabloidy stuff about the beard and the whole disguise thing. Unfortunately, people really are too worried about their jobs now to care about Karadzic.”

Well that’s going to come as a bit of a blow to the man in the dock, who, having insisted on conducting his own defence (a la Milosevic) was probably relishing the prospect of a bit of grandstanding (a la Milosevic). Apparently the Hague Tribunal TV audience in Serbia has vaporised of late. Good job they don’t rely on advertising revenue.

This afternoon, Mr Karadzic is going to be offered the chance to respond to his new streamlined indictment. Last July, he refused to plead guilty or not-guilty and he refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the tribunal.

I’d had a grandstand view of the then-freshly shaven Karadzic as he sat like a statue, gaunt and grim-faced, listening to the equally grim charge-sheet being read out covering allegations of genocide and crimes against humanity relating to the horrors of the Bosnian war.

The focus of those charges has now been narrowed down by prosecutors whose intention to inject greater precision is designed to prevent Mr Karadzic from filibustering as the late, former Serbian president, Slobodan Milosevic managed to do for several years.

The narrowing down of the original 1995 indictment hasn’t diluted the gravity of its content though: Mr Karadzic faces 11 charges, including two of genocide; the other nine being an assortment of crimes against humanity, murder, deportation, terror, a litany of unlawful attacks on civilians and the taking of hostages.

Prominent among all those: Karadzic’s role in the murder of 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica – the worst atrocity on European soil since the second world war. The Muslim population of Serbia’s Sandzak region, who identify closely with the Muslims of Bosnia, will probably make up the bulk of the tribunal TV’s dwindling Serbian audience.

I suspect another secret viewer – probably also in Serbia – will be a Mr Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb general who shared the same original charge sheet as Radovan Karadzic. The Serbian government says it’s committed to catching him and the British, US and French intelligence services are now intensifying the effort to do so. Serbia’s joining the EU hangs on his capture.

No beards and ponytail disguises for Mladic though. “He’s not like his former boss, Karadzic,” says Dragana Solomon. “He’s a hard, professional military man.

“And there’s an expectation that people are going to lose their lives catching him.”

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