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Hague war tribunal closes in on fugitives

THE HAGUE -- I saw my first convicted war criminal — up close and personal in The Hague.

The man, Milan Martic, has been convicted of murder, deportations, plunder, torture, attacks on civilians etc., during his tenure a Serb official during the Yugoslav conflicts in the early 1990s. The setting was the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia where since 1995, a legal process has been meticulously prosecuting a wide range of the accused stemming from the conflicts in Bosnia/Herzegovina, Croatia and Kosovo.

Milan Martic was a big fish in the small but toxic pond of the Krajina, an ethnic Serbian canton of Croatia. From the early 1990s he served as President and Minister of Defense in the rump-regime “Republic of Serbian Krajina.” He forcibly displaced Croat Catholic and other non-Serb Muslim populations through the use of a spider web of “special police forces” and paramilitaries, one group known as “The Wolves of Vucjak.” Though convicted after an eighteen month trial and sentenced to 35 years in prison, I saw Martic during his appeal process during which five international judges sat in consideration.

The ICTY was established by the U.N. Security Council, and since 1995 has exercised a mandate to “Prosecute and try those responsible for serious violations of international humanitarian law committed in the territory of former Yugoslavia since 1991.” The breakup of Yugoslavia saw some of the most abominable crimes committed in Europe since the end of the Second World War — mass executions, torture, rape and plunder.

The Tribunal has indicted 161 people for serious violations of international humanitarian law. Only three remain at large; the notorious Radovan Karadzic, Ratko Mladic, and Goran Hadzic. Of the others, 54 have been sentenced, 10 acquitted, 24 currently on trial, 11 at pre-trial, and 36 had indictments withdrawn, or are deceased. Most notorious of the prisoners has been Serbia’s leader Slobodan Milosevic who was captured in 2001, and tried in the Hague, but died of natural causes in March 2006 before any verdict.

First and foremost this international process is focused on bringing justice to the victims of the brutal ethnic cleansing which became the heinous hallmark of the Milosevic regime. The survivors have the chance to reassert their voice for justice. These are not just faint but haunting calls from the mass graves of Srebrenica, the siege of Sarajevo, or the ruins of Vukovar, but voices, empowered, steadied and strong who can confront the accused in a court of law in the Hague not the Balkans.

The ICTY prides itself not only as holding leaders accountable ranging from a Head of State (Milosevic) to mid-level military operatives. “The question is no longer whether leaders should be held accountable, but rather when they can be called to account,” adds a document. This important step in international justice serves as clear warning from the Balkans to the Sudan and Zimbabwe.

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