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The Bosnia War Crimes Trial Paves Way To Future Cases

The Hague, May 10 (RFE/RL) - It is a trial unlike others. The first war crimes trial since the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials of fifty years ago. But it may mark just the beginning of the international quest for justice in the Balkans.

The defendant is a Bosnian Serb charged with 31 counts of war crime atrocities, and the accusers -- or prosecution witnesses -- are traumatized victims of the Bosnian Serbs' vicious campaign of ethnic cleansing.

Proceedings are difficult. The tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has had to make up its own rules of evidence and procedure.

Some of the accusers are terrified to face the defendant court. And they still fear future retribution.

So the UN War Crime Tribunal in The Hague hearing the case against Dusan Tadic has had to adopt special rules to deal with these extraordinary circumstances. During this trial, which could last months, six prosecution witnesses will be specially protected by having their names, addresses and other identifying details withheld from the public and the media.

They will be permitted to testify in closed sessions or by one-way closed-circuit television to avoid traumatization. The voices and images of three witnesses -- including at least one survivor of the notorious Bosnian Serb detention camp at Omarska where Tadic is alleged to have commited many of his crimes -- will be scrambled to avoid their being identified by Tadic.

One scheduled witness -- a woman who claimed she was raped by Tadic -- has already refused to testify against him out of fear, with the result that three charges were dropped on the first day of the trial last Tuesday.

From the opening day of the trial -- in a specially-built courtroom in a converted insurance company office -- it was apparent that the tribunal is feeling its way cautiously into unknown territory as the first international war crimes tribunal since the losers of World War II were judged at Nuremberg and Tokyo.

Despite the gravity of the charges, the atmosphere in the courtroom during the first week has been low-key, set by Presiding Judge (female) Gabrielle Kirk McDonald of the U.S., whose personal manner is down-to-earth and informal. She is hearing the case with two other judges. There is no jury. All three judges -- including Datuk Lal Vohrah from Malaysia and Sir Ninian Stephen from Australia -- wear impressive red and black robes. They sit on a bench that is raised slightly above the rest of the courtroom.

Like the prosecutor, defense lawyers and Tadic himself, the judges have video monitors in front of them on which they can watch video tape evidence and also examine documents presented by witnesses.

The court ran into problems on the first day, when Judge McDonald complained that she couldn't read the print on documents displayed on the monitors, even with her glasses on. "And they're new glasses," she added.

Problems with the video monitors and with the microphones that are essential for the court translators -- and for the live television broadcast of the trial around the world -- continued to plague the trial. As Judge McDonald joked, "once we get the technology sorted out, everying will go smoothly. If we can just accomplish this task."

The court's official languages are English and French. This week's proceedings were entirely in English, but everything was translated for Tadic's benefit into the language of former Yugoslavia that used to be called Serbo-Croat. Reflecting the divisions from the war, the language is referred to in this court as Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian. That recalls a joke sometimes told by citizens of former Yugoslavia that they used to speak just one language, but they are so smart that now they speak three.

But there are no joking matters for Tadic, who has been in custody for two years -- including time he spent in jail in Germany before being transferred to The Hague. He faces life imprisonment if convicted.

This week he appeared monumentally bored, as the prosecution presented a history lesson about the breakup of former Yugoslavia, focusing on the rise of Serb nationalism and the role the prosecution says Serbia played in arming the Bosnian Serbs in what it says was an international conflict.

Tadic's lawyer has already complained that he has had difficulty in convincing people to testify on Tadic's behalf, because the Bosnian Serb authorities regard him as a deserter and refuse to co-operate with a tribunal they see as an enemy.

Tadic is held in solitary confinement in a special prison in Scheveningen, on the seaside on the outskirts of The Hague. He is transported to court each morning wearing a blindfold and a bullet-proof vest with the initials UN on the front. In court, he now has access to his lawyers, after a wall of bulletproof glass around him was removed. But all the main players in the courtroom proper are cordoned off from the public by a wall of bulletproof glass, giving visitors the impression of watching a play on a stage.

Although his family is back in Bosnia, Tadic has been allowed to have visitors, including a Bosnian Serb woman named Ljubica Metselaar, who is married to a Dutch man and has lived in the Netherlands for 25 years. She deplores the conditions Tadic is being held in, not allowed to touch visitors or speak freely without a guard present. She said he is allowed outside for exercise, but that the walls of the prison are so high that all he sees is a small patch of sky. "He could smell the sea, but he didn't know he is 500 meters from the sea until I told him," Metselaar said.