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Balkans: Visitors See Firsthand How War Crimes Tribunal Works

The International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague is one of the world's best-known courtrooms, thanks to a succession of high-profile trials including that of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. Although the UN court's proceedings are public, most people only see them on television. But curious visitors can observe the trials in person and judge for themselves how well the war crimes court really functions.

Prague, 19 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Aws Haidari, a Canadian student whose parents come from Iraq, never imagined he would see The Hague war crimes tribunal in person.

But recently the 17-year-old, who attends the international school in the Czech capital Prague, got the chance. He and another student won a contest to visit the UN's International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and watch one of the trials in process.

The experience gave him a first-hand look at what, over the past decade, has become one of the world's most familiar -- and multinational -- judicial institutions. The court was established by the UN in 1993 to track down, put on trial, and punish those who conducted the campaigns of ethnic cleansing, mass killings, and rape which characterized the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Haidari says the first thing that strikes visitors to the court is how multinational its staff is. From the guards to the judges, the people who administer the court come from every corner of the world.

"At the International Crimes Tribunal for Yugoslavia, it was extremely international, from the policemen who surround the place -- one of the policemen was Czech -- there were people that were North African, there were policemen from Amsterdam. It was amazing to see all these different nationalities represented."

Haidari and the other students viewed part of the trial of a former Bosnian Serb soldier charged with war crimes. In the proceedings, which they watched from a visitors' gallery, a Bosnian Serb professor testified against the defendant under the questioning of an American prosecutor. The presiding judge was Jamaican.

The multinational nature of the court is part of its effort to not only administer justice in the former Yugoslavia but also to serve as a symbol of the world's shared hope for eliminating such brutal behavior from conflicts in the future.

Such behavior, often inspired by a single ruthless leader, sees military and paramilitary units deliberately terrorizing civilians, frequently for personal gain. One result is that modern conflicts commonly produce many times more civilian than military deaths, despite numerous international conventions designed to protect civilian populations.

Haidari says he was particularly interested in visiting the court because he hopes to one day see a similar tribunal try the leaders of his parents' homeland, Iraq. The regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons to terrorize the Iraqi Kurd population after accusing it of disloyalty in 1988 and continues to systematically torture and execute civilians suspected of opposition activities.

Watching the trial of the Bosnian Serb soldier, Haidari tried to imagine Saddam Hussein in the defendant's place.

"I've been interested in politics for a long time and right now with the news about Iraq and Saddam Hussein -- there is a chance of Saddam Hussein being put out of power -- I was extremely excited to have the opportunity to see an international law court and how it functions for people that have violated human rights and have committed crimes against humanity."

He continues: "I wanted to try to imagine that, look, this person that is being tried, what if Saddam Hussein was in his position, how would he be treated, how would he be questioned or tried?"

Others who visit The Hague court come because they want to see how successfully a multinational tribunal can handle proceedings involving people from very different cultural backgrounds.

Croatian student Masha Milosevic (no relation to former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic), also from the International School of Prague, says she discovered the tribunal is far from an ideal courtroom because the witnesses, defendants, lawyers, and judges usually speak different languages. That means the proceedings must be conducted through interpreters amid tension between people used to different ways of presenting arguments and testimony.

But Milosevic says that despite the difficulties, she was convinced an international court is the only way to try cases that are too emotional and sensitive to handle in the defendants' own countries.

"I think a court system that is familiar to the witnesses and the defendants would be a good thing, but I don't think they could be handled at home, issues like these. Because the war has just happened and it's fresh and people are, of course, very emotional about the issues and I don't think you could find a fair judge or a fair jury who had nothing to do with the war in a country where the war just happened."

She also says that, as a Croat, she believes international trials are important for returning a nation where abuses have occurred to the higher standards of the international community, as expressed by international law.

"I wanted to go because I believe that Croatia will become part of the world, or the world community is going to look at it, mostly through its cooperation with The Hague Tribunal, and that is one of the most important of our foreign policy issues right now, how we communicate with the court."

Zagreb frequently has been faulted by The Hague tribunal for failing to turn over suspects for trial, including Croatia's wartime army chief Janko Bobetko. He was indicted by the tribunal for a 1993 operation in which at least 100 Serb civilians were killed.

The number of people brought to the court still remains a mere handful compared to the total number of suspected war criminals in the Yugoslav conflicts. But defendants include such well-known figures as former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, who is accused of masterminding some of the worst episodes of ethnic cleansing of that era. He has pleaded innocent and his case is still being tried.

This week, the tribunal is also hearing evidence to determine a sentence for former Bosnian Serb President Biljana Plavsic, the most senior official from the former Yugoslavia to plead guilty to charges of persecuting a population..