Radovan Karadžić has been sentenced to life in prison at an appeal court in The Hague for his role in mass killings of civilians in the conflict that tore Bosnia apart a quarter century ago.
Five judges at the UN-mandated court upheld the 2016 verdict at the former Bosnian Serb leader’s first trial almost in its entirety, dismissing all but one of Karadžić’s appeals as “mere disagreement” with the court’s conclusions rather than valid legal objections.
By a majority of three to two, the judges decided to increase his original 40-year jail term to life in prison, saying the trial chamber had “abused its discretion” in passing sentence.
One element from Karadžić’s 2016 conviction involving illegal detentions of civilians was overturned because he was not allowed to cross-examine witnesses, but the appeal court confirmed his guilt for his role in the worst massacres of civilians in Europe since the 1940s.
The chief prosecutor at the tribunal, Serge Brammertz, said the verdict sent an “important message that justice can prevail over evil”.
“Today, the victims of his crimes finally saw him answer for what he did,” Brammertz said. “Opponents of the tribunal will claim that this judgment is a verdict against the Serbian people. I reject that in the strongest terms. Karadžić’s guilt is his, not his community’s.”
The judges upheld the charge of genocide for the July 1995 massacre of more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica, pointing to an order Karadžić had signed four months earlier that called for conditions for the city’s people to be made “unbearable with no hope of further survival”.
Reading the verdict, Judge Vagn Prüsse Joensen said Karadžić had been in constant touch with his forces on the ground at the fall of Srebrenica. He said he had also failed to rebut the 2016 court ruling that, as commander-in-chief of Bosnian Serb forces, he was obliged to investigate and punish perpetrators of war crimes.
Similarly, Joensen said Karadžić had “failed to demonstrate error” in the original findings that Sarajevo was shelled indiscriminately with no distinction between military targets and civilians.
The panel of judges rejected an appeal from the prosecution against Karadžić’s acquittal on the charge of genocide in 20 Bosnian municipalities where massacres were committed.
They said prosecutors had failed to disprove that those massacres should not be classified as genocide. The 2016 ruling has infuriated many Bosnians, who argue that the intent of Karadžić’s campaign of “ethnic cleansing” of Serb-held territory was by definition genocidal.
Karadžić, 73, listened to most of the verdict sitting impassively in a dark suit, his white hair swept back. He was told to stand to hear his sentence being extended. At that moment, a cheer went up from the public gallery, separated from the courtroom by bullet-proof glass.
He has been held at The Hague since his capture in Belgrade in 2008, and his appeal is one of the last war crimes cases from the Bosnian war to be held in The Hague.
After Wednesday’s appeal verdict, Karadžić issued a statement through his lawyer, Peter Robinson, saying: “Politics triumphed over justice here today. The appeal chamber whitewashed an unfair trial and an unjust judgment.”
Robinson said his client had vowed to “continue to fight” against the judgment but had urged his supporters to refrain from violence.
Karadžić led a breakaway Serb territory when Bosnia declared independence from a crumbling Yugoslavia in 1992, after the Soviet Union’s collapse.
The subsequent conflict was marked by atrocities against civilians, most carried out by Bosnian Serb troops, who conducted a campaign of “ethnic cleansing” to rid the self-proclaimed Republika Srpska of Muslims and ethnic Croats.
About 100,000 people were killed and 2.2 million were left homeless. The mass killings culminated in the Srebrenica massacre.
Victims’ groups welcomed the imposition of a life sentence. Murat Tahirovic, the president of the Victims and Witnesses of Genocide Association, told the Bosnian TV network N1: “Total justice is not possible but it is satisfaction for the victims.”
The verdict was streamed online, but with a 30-minute delay – introduced after another Hague defendant, the Bosnian Croat general Slobodan Praljak, killed himself in November 2017 by taking poison in the courtroom after his 20-year sentence was upheld.
After the conflict, Karadžić went into hiding and was captured, disguised as a spiritual healer, in Belgrade in 2008. His legacy has lived on in Bosnia, where the ethnic division of the country has largely been frozen in place by the 1995 Dayton peace accord. The Republika Srpska continues to defy the central government in Sarajevo on a range of issues, and Karadžić is still hailed as a hero by many Serbs. A university dormitory was named after him in 2016.
Karadžić’s justification of ethnic cleansing as a defence of western civilisation against Muslim encroachment has made him an iconic figure among some violent rightwing extremists.
The suspect in the killing of 50 people in Christchurch, New Zealand, on Friday, allegedly listened to a Serb ballad extolling Karadžić’s leadership on the way to the mosques where the shootings took place.
“It is the virulent dehumanisation Karadžić used to mobilise his people against their Muslim neighbours that today threatens stability in the former Yugoslavia but also inspires extremists worldwide,” said Refik Hodzic, a survivor from Prijedor, scene of some of the worst atrocities of the war.
“Unless there is a concerted effort, spearheaded by political sponsors of the Balkan elites – the EU and the US primarily – to deconstruct and delegitimise Karadžić’s ideology and methods, now definitively adjudged to be criminal, his judgment’s relevance will remain eternally limited.”
Karadžić, a former poet and psychiatrist, had appealed against his sentence on 50 grounds and accused judges of conducting a “political trial” against him. He represented himself at his trial, with assistance from Robinson.
Prosecutors argued that Karadžić and the Bosnian Serb army commander Ratko Mladić wanted to permanently remove Muslims and Croats from Serb-held territory.
Mladić, 76, labelled the “Butcher of Bosnia”, is appealing against a life sentence on similar charges. He previously refused to testify at Karadžić’s trial, calling the UN tribunal “satanic”.
The former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, Karadžić’s long-time patron during the war, was on trial in The Hague until his death in 2006.