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War Crimes Trial Starts in The Hague

The Hague, May 7 (RFE/RL) - For the first time since Hitler's henchmen went on trial in Nuremberg half a century ago, Europe today is the site of an international war crimes trial.

Unlike Nuremberg, the man in the dock in The Hague is not one of the architects of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, but a relatively low-level figure accused of enthusiastically participating in the ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims and Croats.

The man in the dock, Dusan Tadic, is one of perhaps thousands of Bosnian Serbs who carried out ethnic cleansing -- a term the Bosnian Serbs themselves coined to describe a campaign of rape, murder, torture and expulsions to get rid of Muslims and Croats in territory the Serbs overran. The Bosnian Serbs' top leaders -- politician Radovan Karadzic and military commander General Ratko Mladic -- are also accused of war crimes by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague, but seem to stand little chance of being arrested and actually being put on trial.

So in this first war crimes trial in 50 years, the world's attention turns instead to Tadic, a 40-year-old former cafe owner and part-time karate instructor who wasn't even a member of the Bosnian Serb military. He was a civilian who now stands accused of 34 counts of crimes that fall into the categories of crimes against humanity, violations of the laws and customs of war and grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions that protect civilians in wartime. The charges against Tadic include rape, murder and torture.

This trial will be the world's first courtroom examination of the Bosnian Serbs' atrocities, which the indictment against Tadic alleges were part of a widespread and systematic attack against the civilian population of Bosnia. Broadly speaking, Tadic is accused of participating in the attack on, seizure, murder and maltreatment of Bosnian Muslims and Croats in the Prijedor region (opstina) of northwestern Bosnia between May and December 1992.

Tadic has pleaded not guilty, and members of his family told CNN television in a program aired last week that Tadic is the victim of mistaken identity and that the crimes he is accused of were actually committed by a look-alike.

The detailed nine-page indictment against Tadic alleges that he helped Serb forces round up and herd civilians into inhuman prison camps at Omarska, Keraterm and Trnopolje. The charges state that Tadic, along with members of the Serb forces, subjected Muslims and Bosnian Croats both inside and outside the camps to what it calls a campaign of terror, including killings, torture, sexual assaults and other physical and psychological abuse.

The indictment against Tadic paints a horrifying picture of conditions at the brutal Omarska camp in the summer of 1992, before international outrage forced the Bosnian Serbs to close it and free their prisoners. The indictment says that Omarska prisoners were fed starvation rations and foul water and had no facilities for personal hygiene. It says severe beatings were commonplace. Both female and male prisoners were beaten, tortured, raped, sexually assaulted and humiliated, the indictment alleges.

Tadic, who had no official position at Omarska or either of the other camps, was reportedly what was called a "camp visitor" who could enter at will and subject prisoners to any kind of treatment. He is accused of physically taking part in the killing of more than 30 detainees, and the torture of more than 12 female detainees including several gang rapes. His trial is expected to last months, with 100 witnesses testifying for the prosecution and 25 to 50 set to testify for the defense.

The Bosnian Serbs have been widely accused of committing the most atrocities during the 43-month war, which saw horrific acts on all three sides. But one of the aims of this trial, the tribunal says, is to free Bosnian Serbs of collective guilt and assign guilt instead to the individuals who committed specific crimes. The Hague tribunal, set up by the U.N. Security Council, has had to move slowly because of the difficulty of gathering evidence while the war was still going on, and the fact that it has been able to lay hands on only six of the 57 people it has indicted.

Still, tribunal spokesman Christian Chartier emphasizes that the Tadic trial is a big step forward in attaining justice for the countless victims of the Bosnian war. And the tribunal promises that three more trials, involving other six defendants, will begin in the next few months to highlight the fact that even war has internationally-accepted rules that the combattants must respect.