UN judges rule Croat Serb leader too ill to continue trial

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UN judges indefinitely halt trial of 'unfit' Hadzic

The Hague (AFP) - UN war crimes judges have ordered an indefinite halt to the trial of Croatian Serb rebel leader Goran Hadzic who is suffering from brain cancer, according to a ruling released Tuesday.

In a majority decision, the judges at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) found that Hadzic "is currently unfit to stand trial".

Hadzic, 57, was the ICTY's final suspect, wanted on 14 war crimes and crimes against humanity charges for his role in the 1991-95 war in Croatia, including the murder of civilians taken from Vukovar hospital in 1991 in one of the conflict's darkest episodes.

He is also charged with responsibility for the massacre of Croat civilians who were forced to walk into a minefield in the Croatian town of Lovas in October 1991 -- one of the first crimes of the long, bloody conflict.

In its judgement made on March 24 but only released Tuesday after being redacted, the court said reports from UN medical officers had shown "a recent and marked deterioration in Hadzic's ability to communicate".

In addition to the tumour which trebled in size between November 2014 when he was diagnosed and May 2015, a new lesion was found in his brain which was likely to impair his functioning "from week to week."

Various medical reports had thus led the court to find Hadzic was "no longer able to effectively exercise his fair trial rights, even with the assistance of counsel".

Rather than drop the proceedings, the judges ordered that they be halted "indefinitely".

Hadzic was arrested in Serbia in 2011 after seven years on the run, after the initial indictment was issued against him in 2004. He was transferred to the UN tribunal's detention unit where his trial opened in October 2012.

He was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer in November 2014, with doctors saying he had at best another two years to live. He was released provisionally in April 2015 to be allowed to travel to northern Serbia for treatment and has lived at his home in Novi Sad since then.

- 'Final stage of life' -

Hadzic wanted to create a Serb-dominated state after the splintering of the former Yugoslavia in 1991 following the collapse of communism.

To this end, he is accused of "cleansing" non-Serbs from about a third of Croatia by using murder, unlawful jailings, beatings, deportations and forcible transfers.

With the ICTY based in The Hague preparing to wind down having indicted 161 people for the brutal Balkans wars, Hadzic was the last of a string of defendants to be prosecuted.

The one-time leader of the self-proclaimed Republic of Serbian Krajina during the early 1990s, he was the last of the 161 suspects to go on trial after being captured in northern Serbia's idyllic Fruska Gora mountains, two months after the court's most wanted fugitive former Bosnian Serb army chief Ratko Mladic.

The breakthrough in his capture came when investigators tracked Hadzic down as he was trying to sell an early 20th-century painting by Italian master Amedeo Modigliani, valued at several million dollars.

Dissenting judge Antoine Kesia-Mbe Mindua disagreed with halting the trial, saying instead that a judgement should be returned as soon as possible.

"Even a person who is in the final stages of his/her life is also entitled to a judgement... even if there is no hope of him/her serving a prison sentence," he wrote.

Recent weeks have seen a string of high-profile cases at the ICTY.

Former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic was found guilty of genocide and sentenced to 40 years in jail on March 24. A week later radical Serb leader Vojislav Seselj was acquitted on all charges in a controversial decision which saw him declared "a free man."