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Lawyer Limelight: Peter Robinson

By January 10, 2012Lawyer Limelights
Photo by SENSE News Agency

The arrest earlier this year of former Bosnian Serb military leader Ratko Mladic, and his extradition to The Hague, brought renewed attention to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, or ICTY, which the United Nations Security Council established in 1993 to prosecute war crimes from the conflicts that followed the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. In recent months, Serb authorities arrested not only Mladic and but also Goran Hadzic, a former Serb leader in Croatia – the last two suspects sought by the ICTY. (The national courts of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Croatia are all prosecuting lower-level offenders, with mixed results.)

(Photo by SENSE News Agency)

At The Hague, Mladic and Hadzic join another of the highest-level suspects to face prosecution, Radovan Karadzic, the former leader of the Bosnian Serbs and president of the Republic Srpska area within Bosnia during the war. Karadzic is presently standing trial at the ICTY for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes allegedly committed in a campaign to rid areas of Bosnian Muslims and Croats for Serb control.

In late June, Lawdragon visited The Hague on a research trip and watched a few days of the Karadzic trial. Though he has decided to represent himself, American lawyer Peter Robinson – a former U.S. federal prosecutor and criminal defense attorney – is serving as legal advisor to Karadzic and assisting in the defense. Robinson also previously worked at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda(ICTR), established in 1994 after the Rwandan genocide.

Lawdragon: How did you come to take this role? A casual observer might assume that Karadzic would not want a Western lawyer assisting him.

Peter Robinson: When President Karadzic was arrested, he wanted to represent himself, but was looking for a lawyer experienced in international criminal law to help him with the legal aspects of his case. I was recommended to him by lawyers from Serbia who had seen me represent other clients at the ICTY.

LD: Our readers are familiar with the principle that everybody deserves a good defense. Nevertheless, with Karadzic we are talking about one of the most notorious alleged war criminals in modern history. Why would you want to work on such a case?

PR: I wanted to work on President Karadzic’s case for a number of reasons. It is a high profile case. Lawyers aspire to work on high profile cases and their careers are often defined by them. I also thought I could help him get a fair trial because I fight hard for my clients and I know the jurisprudence and rules of these Tribunals inside out. And he seemed like a charismatic, personable individual who would be interesting to work with.

LD: On one of the days I attended trial, Karadzic seemed to be conducting a fairly effective cross-examination of an important witness for the prosecution. What is your opinion of his abilities as a lawyer?

PR: President Karadzic has developed into a very good lawyer. He is very intelligent, quick on the uptake, and he works very hard. He knows the facts of what happened in Bosnia better than anyone. He has picked up the techniques of asking leading questions and of avoiding the one question too many. One of the prosecution’s expert witnesses recently told me that Dr. Karadzic cross examined better than any of the lawyers in the five previous trials at which the witness testified.

LD: What about as a person? Have you gotten to know him well?

PR: I have gotten to know President Karadzic very well in the three years we have been working together. People are surprised when I tell them this, but he is a terrific person. He is warm, funny, grateful for the help of others, and a pleasure to work with. As a psychiatrist, poet, politician, and devout Orthodox Christian, he has a wide breadth of knowledge and interests that makes him fascinating to talk to.

LD: In your opinion, is he getting a fair trial? Are there aspects of the proceedings that concern you in terms of fairness?

PR: On a daily basis, the Trial Chamber does its best to ensure that the trial is being conducted fairly. However, before the trial started, the Trial Chamber took judicial notice of over 2300 adjudicated facts from other ICTY trials and admitted the testimony of 148 witnesses without the right of cross examination. That seems to me to have established a presumption that the crimes occurred and shifted the burden to President Karadzic to prove otherwise.

In addition, the prosecution has repeatedly violated its disclosure obligations by failing to disclose exculpatory evidence. We have filed 55 motions for finding of disclosure violations, and won the great majority of them. So the “jury” is still out on whether Dr. Karadzic can receive a fair trial under these circumstances.

LD: What is his defense strategy?

PR: President Karadzic’s defense, in general, is that there was never a joint criminal enterprise to expel Muslims from Serb-held areas in Bosnia and that the expulsions and killings that did occur were not something he desired or ordered, but were the product of the chaos and emotions of a civil war.

LD: What is the status of the case now and how long it is expected to last?

PR: We have heard about 90 of the prosecution’s estimated 250 witnesses so far. The trial began in October 2009 and is expected to last until 2014.

LD: Who did you represent at the ICTR, and what was the outcome of that case?

PR: I represented the President of the Rwandan National Assembly and Secretary General of the ruling party Joseph Nzirorera at the ICTR beginning in 2002. In July 2010, Mr. Nzirorera died during the presentation of our defense case.

LD: From the outside, the two tribunals appear similar. What are some differences between the ICTY and ICTR?

PR: The main difference between the two tribunals is that the ICTY operates at a higher level of professionalism and competence. The ICTR has allowed its trials to be polluted with perjury and has at times convicted individuals for crimes they did not commit. In addition, the ICTY made a point to prosecute persons from all sides to the conflicts in the Balkans, while the ICTR only prosecuted persons from the losing side.

LD: Do you also hope to take cases at the permanent International Criminal Court?

PR: Yes, I would like to defend someone at the ICC when the Karadzic case is over.

LD: Backing up a bit, what were you doing in your career before transitioning into these types of cases? What led you to make this career change?

PR: I was an Assistant United States Attorney for ten years and a criminal defense lawyer in California until 2000 when I decided that I wanted my 11-year-old daughter to be a world citizen. So we moved for one year to The Netherlands and I started working at the ICTY. After I returned to California, I realized that the war crimes cases were more exciting and interesting than my domestic cases, so I decided to continue working at the international tribunals.

LD: Are you permanently hooked? Do you ever see yourself returning back to a more traditional U.S.-side criminal defense practice?

PR: I am indeed permanently hooked. I don’t see myself returning to practice in the United States. The cases here are among the most interesting and complex that I could ever hope to work on in my career.

LD: How often do you get back to your home base (in Santa Rosa, Calif.) as it stands now?

PR: Because we are in trial, I only have the opportunity to get home to Santa Rosa about one or two times a year when the trial is on recess.

LD: What advice would you give lawyers hoping to pursue a career in international criminal cases?

PR: I would advise lawyers to get trial experience in their own jurisdictions so that they would have the tools necessary to prosecute or defend a case at an international tribunal. And if they are passionate about working for international justice, they should go for it no matter what the obstacles.

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