Jacob Heilbrunn

The Mladic Trial and the CIA in Italy

The intersection between international law and foreign policy is a messy one. Two cases in point: the Serbian decision to handover Gen. Ratko Mladic and the second one of alleged CIA operatives who abducted a Muslim cleric from Italy.

The CIA operation took place in Milan in 2003. It caused an uproar in Italy that was almost as fervent as the the one triggered in Pakistan by the American dispatch of Osama bin Laden. The cleric says he was tortured in Egypt, which would hardly come as a surprise. It has all the hallmarks of the kind of black ops measures that were favored by the Bush administration, which had created a secret prison system around the world in which locals could carry out the kind of torture that even the administration was reluctant to sanction. But in Italy a state prosecutor has targeted and won convictions against twenty-three Americans for kidnapping. As the Los Angeles Times notes,


Sabrina De Sousa, one of the alleged CIA operatives who was convicted in Italy, appeared in a Washington courtroom at a hearing on a lawsuit in which she alleges that the U.S. government had abandoned her by not asserting diplomatic immunity on her behalf. Officially listed as a State Department diplomat, she was convicted in absentia in Italy and sentenced to seven years in prison. She risks arrest if she travels to Europe, where a sister lives in Germany, she said.

The American government would just like the whole case to go away. It's caught between wanting to retain its own plausible deniability and selling its own agents out. By failing to protect De Sousa and others, it's sending a signal that any agent would be foolhardy to expect protection from Washington for treacherous operations—and, in the case of this one, an abuction that should never have happened.

What does the Mladic case have in common with the CIA trial? It's that any trial of Mladic is also likely to expose the clumsiness of international law as an instrument of justice. A different mess. But the extradition of Mladic to The Hague, if the current trial of Radovan Karadzic is anything to go by, will become a prolonged trial that goes nowhere:


A trial is likely to be years away, and probably will take years more to complete. Karadzic was arrested near Belgrade and sent to The Hague, in the Netherlands, in 2008, but the proceedings against him have been bogged down by procedural delays, the sheer mass of evidence, and Karadzic's decision to act as his own lawyer and cross-examine witnesses at length.


This makes the Nuremberg trials, which began in November 1945 and ended in October 1946, look very speedy. But the trouble with legalizing foreign policy is clear. It is a protracted process, one that may end, at least in the case of Mladic, with his death in prison before he is actually convicted of any of the ghastly crimes that he perpetrated.