Academic journal article Chicago Journal of International Law

Defending a Person Charged with Genocide

Academic journal article Chicago Journal of International Law

Defending a Person Charged with Genocide

Article excerpt

In August 1997, I was asked to represent Dr. Milan Kovacevic, a Bosnian Serb anesthesiologist who had been indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia ("ICTY") for complicity in genocide. Had he lived through it, his trial would have been the first by the ICTY for the crime of genocide. I would like to describe some of the tribulations of defending clients accused of grave humanitarian offenses in the ICTY. Perhaps by relating stories of my experiences there, some insights for reform can be drawn. First, I will begin with the background of the case itself


Dusan Vucicevic, a schoolmate and fellow anesthesiologist of Kovacevic's, asked me to take his friend's case. The opportunity seemed fascinating, but the idea of defending a genocidal maniac (as I then conceived of it) was quite foreign to my world-view. There were many publicity-seeking attorneys who were anxious to defend a person accused of genocide, so he certainly could have gotten another lawyer if I turned him down. I felt free to accept or reject the case depending on what I could find out about Dr. Kovacevic and the context in which he operated.

Dr. Kovacevic was the chief anesthesiologist and chief administrator of the Prijedor City Hospital in Prijedor, Bosnia (formally known as Republica Srbska). Dr. Kovacevic also served as deputy mayor of that town, and it was in his official position that he was indicted by the ICTY for genocide. He was at work in the hospital on the morning of July 10, 1997, when some unknown individuals arrived, claiming to have a Red Cross package to deliver to him downstairs. He went downstairs to receive the package, but it turned out to be a set-up: North Atlantic Treaty Organization ("NATO") detectives were waiting for him. They arrested him and stuck him on a helicopter along with the local police chiefs son. The son had been arrested by NATO after Simo Drljaca, his father (who was the indicted person) was shot to death while resisting NATO arrest. The detectives took the doctor and the young man to Tuzla and put them into a metal container, the kind used for transatlantic shipping. With the scorching July sun beating down on this metal container, the container's heaters were turned on, and the two men were pushed against the wall. It was so hot in the container that the NATO soldiers could not bear to remain in it for more than a few minutes at a time. While the two prisoners were standing against the wall, Dr. Kovacevic's indictment of complicity in genocide was read to them-there was no indictment against the police chiefs son-by NATO personnel entering and leaving the trailer. As the indictment was slowly read, soldiers came in and out, pressing their guns against the back of the prisoners' heads and clicking the triggers. Each time the prisoners thought they would be killed. The procedure went on for a couple of hours.1 Then the two prisoners were taken out of the sealed container and transported by helicopter to the detention center in The Hague, where soon after his arrival, Dr. Kovacevic suffered his first heart attack.2 I have reason to believe that when he died of an aneurysm some eleven months later (two weeks into his trial), his death may have been caused in part by the torture he endured at the hands of the NATO police.

I did not immediately accept the offer to defend Dr. Kovacevic at the time I was approached to do so in Chicago. Instead I left the question open, pending my first trip to The Hague. Before undertaking the trip, I studied the situation of a deputy mayor in a Yugoslavian city in order to obtain background about my client. I compared what I studied to the lengthy indictment issued against him.

The recent history of Yugoslavia revealed that as a result of the long years of rule under the progressive communist Marshall Tito, three distinct chains of command have been established throughout the state: the police, the military, and the civilian. …

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