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

Krajisnik Lawyer Out of Action

Trial of former Bosnian Serb official delayed after defence counsel accused of malpractice in US.
By Stacy Sullivan

The opening of the long-awaited trial of former Bosnian Serb parliamentary speaker Momcilo Krajisnik was postponed this week after the tribunal learned that his lead counsel, a Serbian-American lawyer, had been temporarily barred from legal practice in the United States.


Deyan Ranko Brashich, who has spent three years and nearly 1.5 million US dollars of the tribunal’s money preparing Krajisnik’s defence, has been barred from practicing law in New York for one year from May 1 because the New York Supreme Court found that he had significantly overcharged one of his clients.


The Supreme Court’s April 1 ruling rendered Brashich ineligible to continue as Krajisnik’s defence lawyer because the Hague tribunal’s statute prevents anyone who has been suspended from practicing law in his or her country from working as counsel.


It also threw the start date of Krajisnik’s trial into question.


Krajisnik was arrested by NATO troops in Bosnia on April 1, 2000 and transferred to tribunal custody a few days later. He is charged with two counts of genocide, five counts of crimes against humanity, and one count of violations of the laws or customs of war, for what the tribunal describes as his role in “a joint criminal enterprise” that aimed to force Bosnian Muslims and Croats out of Republika Srpska, RS.


At a status conference hearing on May 13, Judge Alfonsus Orie called the situation “disastrous” and “embarrassing”.


On the face of it, Brashich’s withdrawal as lead counsel should not have caused too much trouble.


Krajisnik’s defence team includes two other attorneys – Goran Neskovic and Nikola Kostich – both of whom are qualified to represent the former Bosnian Serb leader. Moreover, Brashich is permitted by tribunal regulations to remain on the defence team as a legal advisor.


However, there are a variety of factors which make the situation more difficult.


Brashich, concerned that his continued participation on Krajisnik’s defence team may violate the terms of his New York suspension, is reluctant to remain too involved with the case.


Neskovic, who lives in Bosnia, said he planned to be the defence’s “man in the field” and that he was too busy gathering evidence and too unfamiliar with the common-law proceedings at the tribunal to take over the defence.


And for reasons that remain unclear, Krajisnik is reluctant to appoint Kostich - who was not at the hearing, reportedly because one of his relatives was ill - to lead his defence.


Although Krajisnik did not specify why he could not simply appoint Kostich, court observers speculated that he did not believe the lawyer was up to the job. At least one other war crimes suspect has dismissed Kostich as his counsel, claiming that he did not adequately prepare his defence.


Under the tribunal’s regulations Krajisnik can request another lead counsel, but the tribunal may be reluctant to appoint a new lawyer which will cost additional money and require more time for a defence that has already spent so much time and money preparing its case.


Judge Orie told Krajisnik what his various options were, but warned that the tribunal would consider a request for a new lead counsel - should he request one - but was not obliged to grant his wish.


Krasjisnik said he would meet with his defence team and issued his decision by the end of next week.


The New York Supreme Court temporarily banned Brashich from practicing law for overcharging a client named Ljubica Callahan in excess of more than 23,000 dollars while representing her in foreclosure proceedings against her late husband’s estate.


In its ruling, the New York court said it took such drastic action because Brashich had a history of overcharging his clients and a prior record of disciplinary actions. Tribunal spokesman James Landale said that at this time, there was no evidence to suggest that Brashich overcharged the tribunal.


Brashich has denied the court’s accusations and plans to file an appeal.


Brashich, who emigrated to the United States as an infant just after the Second World War, has a long history of defending fellow Serbs.


As far back as 1979, he helped defend Nikola Kavaja, a Serb who hijacked an American Airlines Boeing 707 which he planned to crash into the Communist Party in Belgrade.


More recently, he defended Stevan Todorovic, a Bosnian Serb police chief indicted by the tribunal for involvement in the ethnic cleansing Bosanski Samac of more than 15,000 Bosnian Croats and Muslims.


In an interview with the New York Daily News in 1999, Brashich compared Todorovic’s actions in Bosnia to cases of police brutality in New York City. “He beat up 40 people, and one of them died. It’s the kind of thing that could happen in the New York Police Department, but it happened in Bosnia and in a war, so he’s accused of being a war criminal,” Brashich told the paper.


Although Todorovic initially pleaded not guilty to crimes against humanity, Brashich helped the former police chief negotiate a plea agreement and the defendant received a relatively short sentence of ten years in prison.


Stacy Sullivan is IWPR’s project manager in The Hague.