Why Won’t They Just Drag Karadzic to Court?

It’s not like the guy has anything else to do.

Radovan Karadzic

Former Bosnian leader and alleged génocidaire Radovan Karadzic refused to attend his war crimes trial at The Hague on Monday and Tuesday and will likely boycott the proceedings next week, as well. Karadzic lingered at the U.N. detention center less than two miles away while the prosecution gave its opening statement. Why can’t the tribunal just haul Karadzic into the courtroom?

Actually, it could. There’s no law preventing the tribunal from dispatching security guards to a prisoner’s cell and even carrying him into the court. He’s been formally charged—with 11 counts of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity—and can be forced to stand trial. But it’s highly unlikely that the tribunal judges would take such a step, since, in short, the optics would be wrong. International courts already struggle to assert their legitimacy, and applying force might make the legal process seem like a show trial or give on-lookers undue sympathy for the defendant. Furthermore, once a petulant accused war criminal is actually in the courtroom, he might act disruptively, by shouting or throwing papers. The judges would have to reprimand him—a sticky situation since they’re supposed to remain impartial.

If Karadzic continues to pout, the trial can proceed without him. International courts, along with most national courts, have policies against trying alleged criminals in absentia—the notion of conducting a trial without having the accused there to confront witnesses subverts due process. This restriction makes it impossible to try a fugitive from justice (like Osama Bin Laden, say), no matter how weighty the evidence. But it doesn’t apply in Karadzic’s case, because he’s been read his rights and formally charged, is in custody, and has been afforded the opportunity to appear at his own trial. By choosing not to appear, he has implicitly waived his rights.

Besides, whether Karadzic likes it or not, he’ll be represented in court. Although the former Bosnian Serb leader has the right to represent himself, it’s legal for the court to limit this allowance—in the interest of advancing the trial—by appointing stand-by counsel. The court goings-on will also be broadcast to his cell via closed-circuit television, and he’ll have the opportunity to jump in at any time.

Karadzic isn’t the first alleged criminal-against-humanity to sit out his day in court. Saddam Hussein attended parts of his trial, but not all of it—boycotting certain sessions in 2006. His defense lawyers boycotted parts of the trial, too, on the grounds that it was conducted unfairly. Likewise, former Liberian President Charles Taylor, accused of orchestrating a bloody civil war in Sierra Leone, boycotted the first session of his trial at The Hague, in June 2007. The proceedings were held up for many months before Taylor agreed to attend with a new defense lawyer.

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Explainer thanks Michael Newton of Vanderbilt University Law School and Michael Scharf of Case Western Reserve University School of Law.