Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Defendant Rounds on His Lawyer

Srebrenica inditee’s broadside against his defence counsel believed to have been provoked by fee-splitting disagreement.
By Karen Meirik

Bosnian Serb colonel Vidoje Blagojevic lashed out in court this week against his defense counsel, US attorney Michael Karnavas, accusing him of aiding the prosecution.

“My indictment is only getting worse, since my defence is fundamentally working against me. If nothing is been done against this, we will see the twilight of justice, not only of Blagojevic,” said the colonel, who is indicted for crimes against humanity and genocide for his role in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre.

The allegations seemed bizarre because they came while Karnavas was adeptly cross-examining one of the prosecution’s most important witnesses, Miroslav Deronjic, the former president of the Bratunac branch of the Serbian Democratic Party, SDS, discrediting some of his testimony by pointing out a range of inconsistencies in his statements. (see related story).

Karnavas, a New York-based lawyer, who teaches at Cardozo Law School, is well-known as an authority on cross-examination.

Tribunal insiders said Blagojevic’s claims stem not from any ineptitude on Karnavas’ part, but rather on the US lawyer and his co-counsel’s unwillingness to split fees with the accused.

Fee-splitting, a practice whereby defense attorneys paid by the court give a percentage of their fees to the accused and their families, is an open secret at the tribunal.

Tribunal insiders said that they did not think that Blagojevic hoped that Karnavas would split his fees, but that the Serb lawyer likely to serve as co-counsel would do so.

However, the lawyer Karnavas chose as his co-counsel, Suzana Tomanovic, whom he met while working in Brcko several years ago, reportedly also refused to split her fees.

Blagojevic asked the tribunal to dismiss his defense team, but the trial chamber refused his request. He appealed the decisions, but once again, was turned down.

While Karnavas appears to be an extremely competent defence lawyer, this is not the first time that a client accused of war crimes has complained about his services. In 1997, a former Rwandan Hutu mayor Paul Akayesu, who was being represented by Karnavas at the Rwanda tribunal in Tanzania, fired the US lawyer after complaining that he was not serving his interests.

Akayesu, who was also accused of genocide, claimed that Karnavas offered to be a defense lawyer only after he was turned by the prosecution. Akaysu subsequently dismissed other defense lawyers as well.

Karen Meirik is a member of the IWPR project team in the Hague.