Feature 10 Feb 16

Deaths Spotlight Hague Tribunal’s Ageing Defendants

The death in custody of Bosnian Serb war criminal Zdravko Tolimir means that 12 defendants at the UN war crimes court in The Hague have now died while on trial or waiting to serve their sentences.

Erna Mackic BIRN Sarajevo
The UN Detention Unit in Scheveningen, The Hague. Photo: BIRN.

When Zdravko Tolimir, the former intelligence chief of the Bosnian Serb Army’s Main Headquarters, who was convicted of the genocide of Bosniaks from Srebrenica, died in the Hague Tribunal’s detention unit earlier this week at the age of 67, he highlighted an ongoing problem for the UN court.

According to the tribunal, the average age of the current detainees is 63 - twice that of European prisons – and as they have got older, 12 of them have fallen ill and died before the end of their trial or while waiting to serve their sentences.

Victims’ groups have said they feel cheated of justice if a convicted war criminal dies before serving his entire sentence.

“I can only say that it is a shame that many war criminals do not live to serve their time, which they earned through their actions,” Hatidza Mehmedovic, president of the Mothers of Srebrenica association, said after Tolimir’s death.

Zdravko Tolimir in court. Photo: ICTY.

Like Tolimir, many of the ageing defendants have had health problems - cardiovascular diseases, problems with their bones, high cholesterol or diabetes.

Former Bosnian Serb military leader Ratko Mladic is reported to have suffered two strokes over the past few years, and many victims fear that he will not live to face the final verdict in his trial for genocide and war crimes.

Former Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic meanwhile said last September that he was worried by the number of grave illnesses reported among Hague Tribunal prisoners, and asked the UN to investigate.

“It is unusual for such a number of diseases to occur in such a small space,” he told court officials.

Karadzic requested an investigation into how detention affects prisoners' health based on claims that 11 detainees suffered from malignant diseases since they went into custody in the summer of 2008.

The detention system in The Hague is not designed for “fragile people in their third age”, he argued – although detainees do have access to a private hospital as well as a general practitioner.

But releasing defendants for medical treatment in their own country poses a different set of problems.

When Serbian Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj, who is on trial for alleged for wartime crimes in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Serbia, arrived in Belgrade in November 2014 after being given provisional release on humanitarian grounds for health treatment, he was welcomed as a hero by his supporters.

Vojislav Seselj burned the Croatian flag in Belgrade last year. Photo: BETA.

Seselj went on to stage nationalist rallies and use provocative rhetoric that angered victims’ groups and neighbouring countries.He also said he had no intention of returning to The Hague for the verdict in his trial.

In March last year, the Hague Tribunal ordered him back into custody, saying that the 61-year-old had “eroded the essential pre-conditions for provisional release”.

Seselj ignored the tribunal, daring the Serbian government to send him back by force. “Let’s see how [Serbian Prime Minister] Aleksandar Vucic and [President] Tomislav Nikolic will arrest me now,” he said defiantly.

There is still no indication of whether he will be back in The Hague in time for his verdict this year, while his party is gearing up to contest the upcoming Serbian elections – polls which seems set to ensure that Seselj keeps getting headlines.

Last April, the tribunal also gave Croatian Serb wartime rebel leader Goran Hadzic temporary release for cancer treatment, allowing him to travel to Serbia for treatment.

Hadzic, 57, was diagnosed with brain cancer. He is facing 14 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity over his alleged involvement in the forced removal and murder of thousands of non-Serb civilians from Croatia between 1991 and 1993.

But his defence team said in a motion to the UN-backed war crimes court in June last year that the trial cannot be completed during the time he has left to live.

“Separating him from his family in the remaining days of his life on the basis of proceedings that cannot reach a conclusion would violate basic human decency,” it said.

The medical prognosis for how much longer Hadzic has to live was redacted from the motion.

The UN Detention Unit. Photo: BIRN

Among those who have died in the Hague Tribunal’s detention unit are former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, who was standing trial for genocide and other crimes.

Milan Kovacevic, who was on trial for wartime crimes in Prijedor in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the president of the municipality of Vukovar, Slavko Dokmanovic, also died in the tribunal’s custody.

Some defendants who had been convicted but were waiting to serve their sentences and had been temporarily freed also died before they reached prison, including former Bosnian Serb troops Drago Nikolic and Milan Gvero, who were sentenced to 35 and five years in prison respectively for their roles in the Srebrenica massacres.

Meanwhile Momir Talic died while on temporary leave during his trial for wartime crimes in the Krajina region, as did former Bosnian Army commander Rasim Delic, who was sentenced to three years in prison for wartime crimes in Zavidovici in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Another former Bosnian Army fighter, Mehmed Alagic, died before his trial could finish, as did former Bosnian Serb fighter Djordje Djokic, who was charged with wartime crimes in Sarajevo.

A further two Hague Tribunal convicts died while serving their sentences: Mile Mrksic, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for crimes in Vukovar, died in jail in Portugal, while Milan Babic serving 13 years for crimes in the self-styled Republic of Serbian Krajina, died in a British prison.

Nine other indicted suspects also died or were murdered before they were even delivered to the Hague Tribunal.

The most notorious of them was the Serbian warlord Zeljko Raznatovic, alias Arkan, who was accused of leading his Tigers paramilitaries to commit some of the most brutal crimes of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Arkan was shot dead in the lobby of the Intercontinental Hotel in Belgrade in 2000, leaving all his alleged victims without the satisfaction of seeing him in the dock.

None of his Tigers was ever convicted of war crimes either.

“Arkan was killed, and with him, the entire case went cold,” Emir Musli, who saw Arkan’s men abusing Bosniaks in his hometown of Bijeljina in 1992, told a BIRN investigation.

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