My Soda with Radovan (Addendum Added)
I met my client yesterday for the first time. For obvious reasons, I cannot recount the substance of what he, I, and his legal associate, Peter Robinson, discussed. But I thought readers might be interested in my impressions of the visit and my sense of Dr. Karadzic, which bears little resemblance to the image portrayed in the media.
First, the UN Detention Unit itself. You can see what it looks like in the photo above. The prison is located in a very nice part of The Hague; indeed, it is abutted by a series of pretty little row houses. As an American, that was a bit of a shock – we hide our prisons in the middle of nowhere, especially those that house inmates convicted of the very worst crimes. (Compare the supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, which housed Timothy McVeigh and continues to house Omar Abdel Rahman, Jose Padilla, the Unabomber, and Eric Rudolph.)
Once inside, the Detention Unit resembles most any prison: lockers for your stuff, a badge identifying you as a visitor (which I wished I could have kept), a metal detector. Peter and I made it into the first waiting area, where we chatted with the Orthodox priest who was scheduled to hold a Christmas mass for Dr. Karadzic and the other Serbian detainees until the guards came to escort us to the visitation area. We passed through two more controlled doors, then walked to the cell block that houses the ICTY detainees. The cell block itself was barren and overgrown with weeds on the outside and rather dingy inside — very much 70s institutional style, all beige and plastic. Having seen it first-hand, I am more than a little bemused by the ICTY website, which tries to convey the impression that the Detention Unit is almost Club Med. The photos on the website were obviously taken for the media’s consumption after a thorough spring cleaning.
Once inside the cell block, the guard showed us into one of the small meeting rooms. We sat down and chatted for a few minutes until Dr. Karadzic arrived. (Peter told me an amazing, and more than a little surreal, story about sitting with Dr. Karadzic in the same room and watching Charles Taylor shoot baskets in the exercise yard.) I have to confess that I wasn’t at all sure what to expect, given everything the media has said about him. But I felt at ease the moment I met him — a reaction facilitated, no doubt, by his casual clothes, warm smile, and the blue plastic box full of drinks, snacks, and documents that he was carrying. He shook my hand, introduced himself, and told me how happy he was that I was in The Hague and how much he appreciated everything I was doing for him. He then gave Peter a Fanta grape soda — his favorite, Dr. Karadzic told me — and asked me to choose between that, an orange soda, and a Coke. Following in Peter’s footsteps, as I often do, I went grape. We then all sat down, and I spent the next five minutes or so telling Dr. Karadzic, at his request, a little about myself and about how I came to be involved in the case. The conversation then veered into more substantive matters that I am not at liberty to discuss.
That said, I can offer a few comments about what Dr. Karadzic is like. None of the following is spin, although readers are certainly entitled to be skeptical.
The first thing I noticed was how at peace he seemed to be. I’ve sat across the table from enough accused criminals to know when someone is putting on a show for me. Dr. Karadzic wasn’t. He has no illusions about his situation, but he emphasized again and again that he wants the trial to be about the facts and the law — not about him. He has obviously accepted the possibility — indeed, the overwhelming likelihood — that he will never again be a free man. That cannot be a happy prospect, but he genuinely seems okay with it. As he said to us, he can read and write and think anywhere.
I was also struck by Dr. Karadzic’s evident intelligence. He speaks very good English, is extremely well-read and articulate, and has a keen interest in world politics. Indeed, we spent as much time discussing the situation in Gaza as we did the situation in the former FRY. (We also discussed Monty Python’s Life of Brian, but that is definitely a protected conversation.)
Finally, I came away from our meeting feeling very comfortable with Dr. Karadzic’s decision to represent himself. I would, of course, prefer that he hire Peter as his legal counsel. But nothing he said to me indicates that his behavior in the courtroom will bear any resemblance to Milosevic, much less to Seselj. I don’t know whether he believes that the ICTY is legitimate; I didn’t ask him. I do know, though, that he views his trial as an opportunity to challenge the ICTY’s often problematic jurisprudence and to ensure that the Tribunal’s official narrative of the events in the former FRY does not exclude the Serbian view. Moreover, I know that he recognizes his limitations and appreciates the legal advice that he is receiving from Peter, from me, and from the many academics and law students we have brought into the case.
I understand why the media simply assumes that Dr. Karadzic is guilty, although I wish they would wait to convict him until after they have seen the evidence and heard the legal arguments. What I don’t understand is why they insist upon portraying him as a crazed lunatic who lives only to follow in Seselj’s footsteps. (See, for example, this article from the normally excellent Institute for War & Peace Reporting.) Such armchair psychologizing has absolutely no basis in fact, accomplishes nothing, and runs the risk of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Then again, the media is only part of the problem. The Registry has taken the indefensible position that Dr. Karadzic is not entitled to give interviews, because media contact would undermine the security of the Detention Unit by exposing its inner workings to the public (despite the fact that you can take a video tour of the Unit on the ICTY website) and would run the risk of “sensational reporting” (unlike Serge Brammertz’s public insistence that he will “unequivocally prove” Dr. Karadzic’s guilt). With such draconian restrictions imposed on Dr. Karadzic — even though, at this point, he has not been convicted of anything — it is impossible to counter the negative images of him that circulate endlessly in the media.
Anyway, so it goes. No one ever said that advising the world’s most notorious criminal defendant would be easy. Regardless of the difficulties that lie ahead, meeting Dr. Karadzic was a remarkable experience — one that I won’t soon forget.
ADDENDUM: In response to a comment and a few private emails, I just want to make clear that I am advising Dr. Karadzic out of principle, not for pecuniary gain. My work on the case is pro bono — I have not, and will never, receive a penny for my efforts.