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War Crimes Trial Opens In The Hague

The Hague, May 8 (RFE/RL) - Dusan Tadic -- the first man to face an international war crimes trial in 50 years -- was portrayed by the prosecution yesterday as a sadistic, violent Bosnian Serb nationalist who enthusiastically murdered, beat and raped non-Serbs.

But Tadic's defense lawyer painted a picture of him as a draft dodger, an ordinary man who tried to live as normal a life as possible in the midst of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

"Dusan Tadic is innocent of these offenses," defense lawyer Michail Wladimiroff told the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague as Tadic's trial began on 31 counts of war crimes. On the opening day of the trial, both sides outlined the cases they will present in a legal proceeding that is expected to last many months.

Wladimiroff spent much of his opening statement attacking what he said were the weaknesses of the international tribunal, which has no power to arrest suspects or compel witnesses to testify. He argued that the politicians who were responsible for the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina are unlikely to come before the tribunal. Instead of going after the top war crimes suspects, he suggested, the tribunal has prosecuted only those suspects who fell into their hands.

Tadic -- a 40-year-old former cafe owner and black belt in karate -- was one of those who came to attention of the tribunal by chance, after he was spotted in Germany in 1994 by some of his alleged victims. Wladimiroff argued that the very fact that Tadic, a Bosnian Serb, went to Germany and mingled with Bosnian Muslims who had cause to hate Serbs proved that he was not guilty. As Wladimiroff put it, "it is inconceivable that he would have gone to live amongst the very people he is alleged to have persecuted if these allegations were true."

But the version of Tadic's wartime activities outlined by Prosecutor Grant Niemann was very different. He described Tadic as a Serb living in Kozarac -- a village in northwestern Bosnia --where all but 300 of the 4,000 inhabitants were Muslims. Niemann said he will prove that the atrocities committed by the Bosnian Serbs while expelling all non-Serbs from territory they conquered were part of a clear plan of ethnic cleansing approved by Serbian and Bosnian Serb military leaders. He said that the term "ethnic cleansing" -- the campaign of terror to force non-Serbs to flee -- was coined by a Serbian extreme nationalist politician and paramilitary leader, Vojislav Seselj.

It is Niemann's contention that Tadic's alleged crimes were all part of what he called "a systematic and thorough operation" of ethnic cleansing which was carried out by the Serbs throughout Bosnia with the aim, he said, of annexing Bosnian-Serb-held territory to Serbia proper.

In the Prijedor region where Tadic lived and is alleged to have committed his crimes, Niemann said he will prove that the Serbs managed to drive out 98 per cent of Muslims in just over a year of war. Niemann said that Tadic was not a member of any military force during the war, but became a fervent Serb nationalist who aggressively adopted anti-Muslim attitudes and went on to kill some of his former friends simply because they were Muslims.

Niemann said most of his case will rest on the testimony of eye-witnesses who were driven from their homes and tortured in Bosnian Serb prison camps where non-Serb civilians were held in violation of the internationally-accepted rules of war in the summer of 1992. The prosecutor described Tadic as one of the privileged special visitors who came into three of these illegal prison camps to commit particularly brutal, sadistic atrocities.

Tadic's lawyer did not argue with the prosecution's description of the three prison camps -- Omarska, Keraterm and Trnopolje -- as places where unimaginable horror reigned. Wladimiroff said he does not question the suffering of the camp victims, but he does question their ability to give impartial testimony.

He argued that the camp survivors have compared stories so often that they can no longer distinguish between what they actually saw and what they only heard about. Tadic is being tried as an individual, his lawyer argued, and cannot be made the scapegoat for all the atrocities committed by Bosnian Serbs in the camps. "Dusan Tadic was not in the camps in any capacity," Wladimiroff told the tribunal.

To a RFE/RL correspondent in the courtroom yesterday, Tadic appeared impassive during the two lawyers' opening statements, his only sign of emotion being several deep sighs. But a (female) friend of his who was also in the courtroom thought he looked, in her words, "very very nervous and frightened." Indeed, he has much to be frightened about. If convicted on any of the war crimes charges, he could face life imprisonment.