Karadzic Arrest: A Boost for Serbia

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Former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic's latest lair wasn't a cave or a safe house; no hidden compartments or special security details shielded him. Instead, it turns out that one of the world's most wanted men was hiding in plain view in the drab, anonymous housing blocks of Novo Belgrade, a suburb of the Serbian capital. He was nabbed not by NATO, whose forces had spent 13 years in a vain and sometimes desultory search for him, but by the security forces of Serbia, the country whose fantastic designs for grandeur he had once so ardently tried to further. Now Karadzic, 63, faces a trial before the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) for genocide and crimes against humanity committed during the 1992-95 Bosnian war.

According to the indictment formulated in 1994, Karadzic — who presided, often grandly, over the self-styled "Serbian Republic" in eastern Bosnia during the war — is responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslims, as well as for a vicious ethnic cleansing campaign, which left many more homeless. The prosecution in the Hague, where the ICTY is based, also claims that Karadzic set up concentration camps in which non-Serbs were systematically tortured, murdered and raped. The indictment was later amended to include genocide charges linked to the massacre of more than 7,500 men and boys in the U.N. "safe area" of Srebrenica in July 1995.

After the 1995 Dayton Peace accord, which ended the Bosnian war, Karadzic went underground. It was widely believed that he was hiding in the rugged mountains of eastern Bosnia, near the border of his native Montenegro. Instead, Serbian authorities said, for at least a year he was working under an assumed name as a physician in a private clinic in Belgrade. "He practiced alternative medicine posing as Dragan Dabic," Vladimir Vukcevic, Serbia's special war-crimes prosecutor, said at the news conference on Tuesday, adding that the people at the clinic were unaware of his true identity. "He was very convincing," Vukcevic said, showing a recent photo of Karadzic, who worked as a psychiatrist in Sarajevo before the war. In the picture, Karadzic sports a long white beard and glasses, looking somewhat like Albus Dumbledore from the Harry Potter series. In that guise, he is said to have taught meditation and methods for preserving "bioenergy." Even at occasional lectures attended by hundreds, no one recognized him as Karadzic.

Serbian authorities gave scant details of the arrest, saying only that Karadzic was placed under surveillance a few weeks before he was picked up while moving from one spot to another. "We wanted to minimize the risk of casualties," Vukcevic said. "He didn't resist and was mostly silent when he was brought to the court," he added.

However, Karadzic's lawyer Svetozar Vujacic claims his client was picked up in a public bus three days earlier, on Friday evening, and kept in an undisclosed location until the arrest was announced late Monday night. Speaking in front of the Special Court building in downtown Belgrade, Vujacic told journalists that Karadzic remained silent during the hearing. He also said that Karadzic had been refusing food since the arrest and that he was "calm and composed." He said that a doctor had examined Karadzic and diagnosed him as healthy.

The government, however, stuck to the official version. Karadzic is expected to be transferred to the tribunal's detention unit in the Hague after the legal proceedings in Serbia, which may take up to nine days. Serbian authorities dismissed speculation that they intend to put him on trial in Belgrade.

The arrest was a shock to most Belgrade observers, who were convinced that Karadzic was not in Serbia. Natasa Kandic, a human rights activist who spent many years researching war crimes in former Yugoslavia, told TIME she initially disbelieved the news. "It sounded to good to be true," Kandic said. "This is a breakthrough moment for Serbia."

In the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo, which was subjected to years of random shelling and sniper fire from Serb forces to the east and south, the news that Karadzic was finally apprehended triggered street celebrations. "This was a good day for justice," Bosnia's President Haris Silajdzic said in a televised address. "I am very pleased that the Serbian authorities mustered enough strength to make this bold move."

The arrest boosted the credibility of Serbia's new pro-Western government, which assumed power earlier this month after narrowly defeating hard-line nationalists at the May 11 parliamentary polls. The dominant party in the ruling coalition is the Democratic Party, led by President Boris Tadic, but it also includes ministers from the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), once led by former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic. The new SPS leadership, however, shows no traits of Milosevic's brutal nationalism and is generally pro-Western.

Still, the inclusion of the SPS in the government, with its chairman Ivica Dacic as Vice Premier and Minister of Police, raised doubts that the remaining war crimes suspects would be apprehended. In recent years, during the reign of nationalist Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, Serbia's failure to arrest fugitive war criminals has caused the country to lag behind other Balkan nations striving for membership in the European Union. Now, the arrest of Karadzic has begun to dispel these doubts. "We have just jumped over a big hurdle on the pathway toward European integrations," Defense Minister Dragan Sutanovac said in a statement to national news agency Tanjug. "No one can doubt anymore that the government will uncompromisingly resolve the inherited problems," he said.

Sutanovac also called on the remaining two fugitives from the tribunal — former Bosnian Serb military leader Ratko Mladic, deemed to be responsible for the death of at least 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica in 1995, and Goran Hadzic, a Croatian Serb leader — to surrender. "I appeal to the remaining indicted individuals to surrender themselves voluntarily, because that is in the interests of the state as well as in their own interests," the minister said.

However, Karadzic's lawyer Vujacic, the Secretary General of the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS), which controls almost 30% of the Serbian Parliament, said that the arrest was "a horrible day for Serbia." "Tadic has done all for Serbia to disappear and for people who are a symbol of patriotism to disappear," he said.

Still, fewer than a hundred protesters gathered in front of the Parliament on Monday night after the arrest was announced, and they quickly dispersed once riot police approached. Tuesday was peaceful, with no signs of a nationalist backlash. Another small protest, led by Vujacic, was launched on Tuesday afternoon, and it was quickly broken up.

The arrest was welcomed throughout the world. In Brussels, the E.U. foreign ministers stated that "the arrest was an important step in Serbia's integration" that showed "the determination of the new government in Belgrade to contribute to peace and stability in the Balkan region. In a statement on the arrest, the White House said, "There is no better tribute to the victims of the war's atrocities than bringing their perpetrators to justice."

Hopes are now high that Mladic and Hadzic will be apprehended soon. "Now that Karadzic is behind bars, many will see it as evidence that other fugitives are also within reach," said Ljiljana Smajlovic, editor in chief of the Poliitika daily news. "The pressure will not stop until the job is completely done."