The final verdict

THERE are ethnic Serbs still at liberty, living quietly, maybe now in retirement, drinking coffee with friends, surrounded by their children and grandchildren, who a quarter of a century ago set out to destroy the lives and happiness of people very much like them except that they were Muslims.

These individuals were the Bosnian Serb thugs who ran death and torture camps and whose ultimate crime was the genocidal slaughter of some 8,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica, the worst atrocity in Europe since the mass murders of millions carried out by Germany’s Nazis. The devastating ethnic cleansing against both the Bosnian Muslim and Croat communities still seems unbelievable in a Europe that prided itself on its tolerance, inclusiveness and the rule of law. Yet these enormities took place while most of the rest of the continent looked on, seemingly helpless.

The UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague was always an extremely poor atonement for this terrible neglect of the desperate plight of fellow Europeans. In total only 161 accused appeared before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), the great majority of whom were found guilty and given long jail sentences. Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, the man whose brutal maneuverings paved the way for the carnage in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia, died during his trial. The focus then turned to the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his military henchman, Ratko Mladic, both of whom were found in hiding and brought to the Hague to answer for their appalling crimes. Mladic, the army commander who gave the actual orders for the Srebrenica massacre after a UN Dutch peacekeeping force surrendered to his men, was found guilty two years ago of war crimes and genocide and sentenced to life.

The previous year, his political boss, Karadzic had been convicted of the same crimes and given forty years imprisonment. Yet the smooth-talking Karadzic chose to appeal his conviction, arguing the prosecution case against him had been based on “rumors”. All the ICTY trials have been heart-breaking for the witnesses who gave harrowing testimony of what happened to members of their families, friends and neighbors. They were obliged to relive the traumas they had experienced in the belief that justice would at last be done. When Karadzic refused to accept his guilt and insisted on appealing, there was general repugnance and the fear that this arch criminal might yet wriggle out of responsibility for the horrific crimes he had committed.

This week, the ICTY appeals tribunal rejected this monster’s appeal and underlined its disdain for his defense by increasing his sentence from 40 years to life. The 73-year-old Karadzic was of course never again going to be a free man. But by condemning him to life, the judges demonstrated their disgust and contempt for him and the savage, inhuman values for which he always stood.

There has been much sententious talk about “closure” for those who lost loved ones in the barbarity that Karadzic oversaw. The wounds inflicted on these innocent people will never heal. They will take them with them to their graves. Nevertheless, this said, it must be hoped there is some small comfort in the knowledge that Karadzic and Mladic, the chief instigators of so much heartless bloodletting are now both condemned to a living death.