THE HAGUE — The first international war crimes trial since the end of World War II began here Tuesday amid a sense of anticipation and history, but with troubling questions hanging in the air and a small-time Bosnian Serb political operator named Dusan Tadic as the lone defendant.
"This trial has clear historic dimensions, but we must all remember that first and foremost this is a criminal trial," said Gabrielle Kirk McDonald, the American presiding judge of the court, which is formally known as the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.
"Whatever goes on outside this courtroom, we want justice to be done and to be seen to be done," she said.
Tuesday's trial began more than two years after the tribunal was established by the United Nations to investigate and prosecute war crimes committed during the Balkan war. It has also been more than two years since Tadic was arrested by German police in Munich.
Most of the first day was consumed by opening arguments in the case against the 41-year-old Tadic, who is accused of murdering, beating and torturing Muslims, mainly in three northern Bosnia-Herzegovina concentration camps during the initial chaotic months after the war in Bosnia began in April 1992.
In the course of a nearly two-hour opening statement, prosecutor Grant Niemann said he would take the tribunal on "a journey of unspeakable horrors" as he presented the 31 counts of crimes against humanity, violations of the laws and customs of war, and grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions contained in the indictment against Tadic.
As Niemann spoke, the defendant faced him across the courtroom. Wearing an ill-fitting blue suit, white shirt and tie, Tadic looked pale and seemed nervous as he listened grim-faced through an interpreter. Tadic's chief defense attorney, a prominent Dutch trial lawyer named Michail Wladimiroff, suggested that his client is the victim of an international search for revenge.
Wladimiroff said he would prove that someone else, not Tadic, committed the crimes for which he is accused. He described his client as a deserter from the Bosnian Serb cause who fled to Germany, where he was eventually arrested.
"The thirst of revenge must not be satisfied at the well of polluted justice," he told the court.
Wladimiroff criticized the dearth of rules and guidelines governing the tribunal's work, complaining that those that do exist are untested and have been subject to no legislative review. He also said the defense is working at an extreme disadvantage because all its witnesses still live in Serb-controlled parts of Bosnia and are intimidated by strong anti-tribunal sentiment there. By contrast, all of the more than 80 prosecution witnesses now live outside Serbian areas, he said.
"This trial will probably not provide a successful search for the truth," he told the court.
Despite Wladimiroff's remarks, it was the prosecution, not the defense, that appeared to suffer most from the problem of witness intimidation, at least initially. It was forced to drop an additional charge of rape against Tadic three days before the trial began when the victim suddenly decided not to testify, apparently after threats were made against her family.
The development is considered a significant setback to the prosecution because the charge would have marked the first treatment of rape as a war crime. It would also have addressed the issue of how rape was used in the Bosnian war to instill terror in the civilian population.
Some observers argued that intimidation remains high because leaders indicted as war criminals remain in positions of influence in Serb-controlled areas of Bosnia.
"The fact that witnesses have said they wouldn't testify because of fears for their family is an indicator that the presence of senior officials [indicted by the tribunal] still at large not only undercuts human rights in the former Yugoslavia but also hampers the work of the tribunal," said Richard Dicker, an associate counsel at Human Rights Watch in New York.
The tribunal's biggest shortcoming to date has been its failure to gain custody of those it has indicted. Including Tadic, it has only three of the 57 people formally charged. Principals such as Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his military leader, Gen. Ratko Mladic, remain at large.
The start of Tuesday's trial brought inevitable comparisons with the last war crimes trials, in Nuremberg and Tokyo. Advocates of the Hague tribunal see it as a major advancement on the post-World War II courts because it is not composed of victors but is an international body made up of representatives from nations not directly involved in the Bosnian war. At least in theory, it will sit as a more objective court.
Much as in Nuremberg, Germany, and Tokyo, the Hague tribunal has a powerful U.S. influence: The presiding judge and three of the four prosecutors in the Tadic case are from the United States.