I don’t get to meet many alleged mass murderers in my line of business – which is probably just as well, because I don’t much enjoy it.
My two encounters with Radovan Karadzic – in the days before he was indicted for genocide and war crimes, and was being wined and dined by European government leaders – remain imprinted on my memory as two of the most unpleasant experiences of my career.
The first time we met was at the height of the siege of Sarajevo. You may remember it: night after night, our TV screens showed people being shot at by snipers and shelled from the surrounding hills. So there he was, in the studio, the man everyone held responsible for the deaths of thousands of people in a vicious civil war.
I remember telling my colleagues that I would refuse to shake his hand. They ushered him into the studio ahead of me, I sat down opposite him and immediately began the interview. No pleasantries, no chit-chat. When it was over, I muttered a curt “thank you” and walked out.
On the second occasion, we met at his London hotel. He was late, and when he finally arrived, I saw him come into the lobby together with his wife, laden with shopping bags from some of London’s best-known department stores. Again, I tried to keep the pleasantries to an absolute minimum.
He was, as many others have remarked, a man with a remarkable capacity for, shall we say, claiming as true things that few others believed. During the siege of Sarajevo, he insisted in our interview that there were no Serb snipers shooting at civilians. No Serb mortars being fired from the hills; no Serb guns firing at UN planes bringing in relief supplies; no “ethnic cleansing” of Muslim and Croat villages.
So now he is to face his accusers at the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague. His capture is a remarkable symbol of how a democratically elected government can dramatically change the political weather. I find it hard to believe that it is a coincidence that he was arrested just four days after the appointment of a new head of Serbia's police intelligence agency, replacing a man who was said to be a close ally of the former Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica.
Don’t expect Karadzic’s trial to start any time soon. I’d guess early next year is the earliest likely starting date, and proceedings will be, as they always are in such cases, lengthy. And expect to hear a lot about “command responsibility” – will the prosecution be able to prove that Karadzic himself was personally involved in the decisions that led to the killing of thousands, including the slaughter of nearly 8,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica?
Article 7 (3) of the international war crimes tribunal’s statute lays down that the fact that crimes "were committed by a subordinate does not relieve his superior of criminal responsibility if he knew or had reason to know that the subordinate was about to commit such acts, or had done so and the superior failed to take the necessary and reasonable measures to prevent such acts or to punish the perpetrators."
So it won’t be enough for Karadzic to argue that he never ordered any massacres. (If you want to see the detail of what he’s charged with, you can find it on the tribunal’s website here. But I warn you: it doesn’t make pleasant reading.) The key allegation is that he “planned, instigated, ordered, committed or otherwise aided and abetted the planning, preparation or execution of the destruction, in whole or in part, of the Bosnian Muslim and Bosnian Croat national, ethnic, racial or religious groups.”
Or to use just a single word, genocide.