Radislav Krstic was indicted on Oct. 30, 1998, by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia for his role in the July 1995 Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Krstic was the deputy commander and chief of staff of the Bosnian Serb Army from October 1994 to July 1995, when he was promoted to major general and assumed command of the Drina Corps, one of six geographical army units. With Gen. Ratko Mladic, Krstic oversaw the worse mass slaughter in Europe since World War II.
Transcripts of radio broadcasts showed Krstic telling his officers to “kill them all . . . not a single one must be left alive.” By July 19, 1995, the Serbian Army had forcibly evicted, assaulted, raped and killed more than 8,000 Bosnian civilians, mostly men and boys. The presiding judge at the tribunal, Fouad Riad, an Egyptian, described the atrocities at a 1995 indictment of Mladic as “truly scenes from hell, written on the darkest pages of human history.”
Krstic, who is 65, became the first person to be convicted of genocide by the tribunal, on Aug. 2, 2001. Mladic, who remained at large for almost 16 years in Serbia, is being tried at the tribunal for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. He is 71 years old.
Krstic was sentenced to 46 years in prison. After a successful appeal in 2004, his sentence was shortened to 35 years for the lesser crime of “aiding and abetting genocide.”
But there is life after a conviction from the Yugoslav tribunal. The detention of Krstic has posed major challenges, reflecting a continuing problem for the court in long-term jailing of war criminals, an issue that the press office would not discuss at length.
The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia was established by the United Nations in May 1993 in response to the mass atrocities taking place in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina (and expanded eventually to Kosovo and Macedonia). It was the first war crimes court to be set up since Nuremburg and Tokyo after World War II. It is located in The Hague, and as of August 2013, the court has indicted 161 individuals and sentenced 69. Four trials are currently in session.
Aryeh Neier, president emeritus of the Open Society Foundations and a pre-eminent human-rights defender, recently called the tribunal the “best” of its kind, with “good-quality trials on the whole” and having set a standard for accountability. (Neier was speaking at a Hunter College symposium on human rights in New York.)
The court has a detention center that opened in 1995, located in a Hague neighborhood. It houses individuals awaiting trial at the tribunal, as well as those awaiting trial at the International Criminal Court and several other international tribunals. At his first appearance before the court, Krstic was complimentary of his lodging, saying, “The people are very correct in their treatment of us all, and particularly to me myself.”
The detention center has often been praised (and ridiculed) for its relatively comfortable accommodations. Some have christened it The Hague Hilton. Prisoners can watch TV, take occupational therapy classes, art classes and exercise classes. They have private rooms equipped with a bed, shelving unit and a window. But once a person has been convicted and sentenced, he is transferred to a prison outside the Netherlands to serve his time. (Most of the convicted are men.)
Seventeen European countries have signed an agreement with the tribunal to hold prisoners who are carrying out their sentences. A press officer for the tribunal explained in an e-mail that the tribunal president “determines the state where a convict will be transferred, on the basis of the Registrar’s preliminary enquiry into which state is prepared to enforce the sentence.” These decisions involve several factors, including the proximity of the chosen country to the convicted individual’s relatives and former associates.
The International Criminal Court, also based in The Hague, has formal agreements with a few member countries to take convicted prisoners as well, and managing these agreements and the logistics of transferring prisoners is the responsibility of the court’s registry, said John Washburn, the convener of the American Non-Governmental Organizations Coalition for the International Criminal Court, a program at the Columbia University Institute for the Study of Human Rights. Countries may be more willing to take International Criminal Court prisoners over ones from the Yugoslav tribunal because the former is permanent while the tribunal is scheduled to go out of business soon. That means that it will always be possible to have an ICC prisoner who is no longer welcome transferred elsewhere, Washburn added.
On Dec. 20, 2004, Krstic was transferred to Wakefield Prison in West Yorkshire, England, to live out the remainder of his 35-year sentence. In May 2010, three young Muslim inmates, serving life sentences for murder, discovered the role their fellow prisoner played in the mass slaughter of Muslims in Srebenica. In an act of revenge, the men attacked Krstic, slashing his throat and stabbing him many times.
Krstic, who has an artificial leg, was immediately transferred to another prison in Britain. But when the inmates discovered he was a war criminal, he was subjected to more provocations and violence. Finally, in December 2011, he was transferred back to The Hague and relative safety and comfort, where he remains today.
In December 2012, a Warsaw court cleared Krstic to be transferred to a prison in Poland, where he would live out the remaining 24 years of his sentence. But he has yet to be sent. Officials at The Hague have refused to comment on whether Krstic will be sent to Poland.
The UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners specifies the need for countries to make sure prisoners are free from the threat of violence. Shortly after Krstic’s attack at Wakefield, Serbian officials called the legitimacy of the entire Yugoslav tribunal into question, saying that its “whole position” would be undermined if those convicted “couldn’t even be protected in a prison.”
One official implied that the attack was allowed to happen and that “a blind eye was turned” because of Krstic’s status as a war criminal. Theodor Meron, an American and the president of the Yugoslav tribunal, has consistently reaffirmed his faith in the court’s effectiveness, saying “[a]bandoning the tribunal . . . would have a negative impact on the behavior of the parties to the conflict . . .those committing war crimes would infer that regardless of their past or future violations they will not be held criminally accountable.”
Robert D. Sloane, a professor of law at Boston University, said that maintaining a commitment to international law was imperative even when the value of international tribunals is called into question and that it was important to maximize the “level of cooperation and jurisprudential exchange between national and international criminal justice institutions.”
Most recently, Krstic successfully appealed a contempt conviction after refusing to testify in the case of his boss, Ratko Mladic.
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Sierra Ortega is a freelance journalist and theater performer. She received her bachelor’s degree in political science from Brigham Young University and is studying for a master’s degree in journalism at Hofstra University. Ortega has written for local newspapers in Utah and was a contributing writer for The InterDependent, a publication of the United Nations Association of the USA. She can be reached at email@example.com.