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Tensions Raised at Prlic Trial

Prosecution and defence lawyers object to interventions by judges.
By Lisa Clifford
The prosecution and defence have clashed with tribunal judges hearing the case against six Bosnian Croats, saying their intrusive questioning is jeopardising the fairness of the trial.

Lawyers for both sides this week made impassioned appeals to the court, arguing that the numerous questions from the bench are disruptive and have made it virtually impossible for lawyers to put their cases effectively.

They also repeated a previous complaint about time constraints imposed by the judges.

Jadranko Prlic, Bruno Stolic, Slobodan Praljak, Milivoj Petkovic, Valentin Coric and Berislav Pusic were senior political and military leaders of the unrecognised Croat entity known as Herceg Bosna. They face 26 charges of war crimes for the expulsion and murder of Muslims in Bosnia and Hercegovina during the Croatian-Muslim conflict in 1993.

They are also accused of being part of a joint criminal enterprise to politically and militarily subjugate and ethnically cleanse Bosnian Muslims and other non-Croats from parts of Bosnia that they claimed as Herceg Bosna and to join this territory to a “greater Croatia”.

Also allegedly involved in this joint criminal enterprise were the former president of Croatia Franjo Tudjman, former Croatian defence minister Gojko Susak and Mate Boban, the president of Herceg Bosna. All three are now deceased.

This week, prosecutor Ken Scott told the judges – led by France’s Jean-Claude Antonetti – that their principal role when hearing the case is that of a “neutral, procedural umpire”.

He said lawyers must be given time to conduct questioning according to their own plans, and not suffer frequent interruptions from the judges as is happening at the moment.

“If the prosecution has not asked a question, I would say nine times out of 10 there is a very good reason why,” said Scott.

Prlic’s lawyer Michael Karnavas agreed that the “constant questioning” is problematic. He told IWPR it’s not up to the judges to search for the truth but rather to determine whether the prosecution has proved its case.

“The judges are trying to take over the questioning, because they’re impatient, and it’s disruptive,” said Karnavas. “Judges are paid to be patient. Both sides are struggling to have time to put their case forward.

“I am asking for my client to be afforded the same procedural rights and fairness afforded to other accused who - unlike Mr Prlic - were not tried under the shadow of the completion strategy.”

All trials at the tribunal must be concluded by 2008, with the court due to close its doors in 2010.

To speed up the proceedings – which have been going on for nearly one year and were described by Karnavas this week as by far the most complicated at the tribunal – Judge Antonetti in April 2006 ordered the prosecution to cut its case to 400 hours from the 450 it had requested.

In November, amid vehement protests from both sides, he slashed the prosecution’s allotted time by another 107 hours in order to ensure the case finishes by this summer’s July recess.

Defence lawyers, meanwhile, were given one-sixth of the time used by the prosecution for their cross-examination of each witness.

These time constraints, coupled with the controversy over judges’ questions, contributed to a tense atmosphere in court both this week and last.

The mood deteriorated further after remarks from Judge Antonetti that appeared to suggest that the frequent interventions from the bench actually helped the defence.

“In 90 per cent of the cases - 95 per cent of the cases - most of the questions are in favour of your clients,” he said, addressing Karnavas and the other defence lawyers.

“When you say that it is not a fair trial, I would like you to tell me of another chamber that is to such an extent in favour of the defence.”

Judge Antonetti’s comments made at the March 15 session left prosecutors incredulous and Scott sitting with his head down. He told the court on March 19 that he wanted to “disappear” from the room.

“I was so embarrassed for this institution. I was embarrassed for myself… Frankly, I was even embarrassed for the judges,” he said.

Judges Arpad Prandler and Stephan Trechsel hurried to distance themselves from their colleague, saying on March 19 that his remarks do not “reflect our attitude”. They also pointed out they do not keep track of whether answers to their questions are favourable to one side or the other.

Then it was Antonetti’s turn to explain, which he did by blaming French-to-English translation problems, “The translation doesn’t always come across as it should and doesn’t reflect what I said.”

He then described his remarks as a “slip of the tongue” and explained what he’d meant to say was that in most cases, the answers to questions from the bench were in favour of the defence. He admitted, however, that he had not worked out the percentage.

Scott, however, seemed sceptical, saying, “The prosecution is very concerned whether the victims, the prosecution and the international community will receive a fair trial in this case.”

The week ended on a more conciliatory note with a special hearing on March 22 – described by Judge Antonetti as “positive and constructive” – to discuss time constraints and other matters.

“No matter what we do, this trial cannot move any faster than it’s moving, and it’s moving way too fast in my opinion,” said Karnavas.

The case continues next week.

Lisa Clifford and Caroline Tosh are IWPR reporters.

As coronavirus sweeps the globe, IWPR’s network of local reporters, activists and analysts are examining the economic, social and political impact of this era-defining pandemic.


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