WASHINGTON -- Setting the stage for a Bosnian war-crimes trial in an American court, the Supreme Court refused yesterday to block damage lawsuits against the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic.
Without comment, the court left intact a federal appeals court ruling that clears the way for thousands of Bosnian Muslims and Croats to pursue their claims in a U.S. district court in New York City.
"It is safe to say that we are seeking hundreds of millions of dollars" from Karadzic, said Beth Stephens, a Rutgers University law professor who is handling one of the two cases.
The complaints of war crimes and atrocities in those cases parallel the crimes charged against Karadzic in a United Nations tribunal in The Hague, the Dutch capital.
Karadzic, who is at liberty in Bosnia, would not have to be present in American courts for the damages lawsuits to go forward. If those cases result in verdicts against him, lawyers involved would seek to collect the funds from his assets anywhere in the world, Stephens said.
The fact that the case now will proceed does not mean that Karadzic would ever be required to pay anything, or even if he is, that an American court could collect the damages. A global search for assets, and cooperation of other countries in surrendering them, would be necessary.
"I believe he has assets someplace, and we assume he's trying to hide them," Stephens added. The lawyers will seek to have any assets identified and then frozen.
Karadzic's appeal to the Supreme Court was filed by a former U.S. attorney general, Ramsey Clark, now a New York lawyer.
The claims against him in this country are based on a 1789 law that allows American federal courts to hear lawsuits claiming that wrongs were committed anywhere in the world, if those wrongs violate international law.
Last fall, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City ruled that Karadzic could be sued for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. There is no timetable yet for a trial.
The lawsuits represent a broad group of Muslims and Croats, still living in Bosnia, or their relatives or survivors. They contend that Karadzic was personally responsible for widespread human rights abuses during "ethnic cleansing" atrocities after Bosnia declared independence from Yugoslavia four years ago.
The Supreme Court gave no reason for turning down Karadzic's appeal, which claimed that he was not subject to American courts' authority and that a trial would interfere with diplomatic efforts to bring peace to Bosnia.
In a second action in an international case, the justices agreed to rule on the legality of a State Department policy that forces Vietnamese "boat people" in Hong Kong to return to Vietnam before they may seek visas to enter the United States.
Pub Date: 6/18/96