AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - The Yugoslavia war crimes tribunal begins trying its last suspect on Tuesday, opening the final chapter for an institution that has broken new ground in the investigation of conflicts and paved the way for a permanent global war crimes court.
Goran Hadzic, the last of 161 suspects still alive and at large after the wars that accompanied the breakup of Yugoslavia, was arrested last year and is accused of murder, torture and forcible deportation at the very outset of those wars.
Prosecutors say Hadzic, president of the self-proclaimed Republic of Serbian Krajina from 1992-94, was responsible for killings and forced deportations of minority ethnic Croats from the region after the Croatian government in Zagreb broke away from Yugoslavia in 1991.
Already sentenced in his absence to a total of 40 years in prison by Croatian courts in the mid-1990s, Hadzic was finally detained by Serbian authorities in 2011.
The opening of his trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) coincides with the opening of the defense's case in the trial of the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, which began in 2009.
Karadzic is one of a trio of architects of the Balkan wars brought to trial in The Hague for wars among the successor countries and the peoples of multi-ethnic Yugoslavia between 1991 and 1999, in which well over 100,000 people were killed and millions were displaced.
Bosnian Serb military leader Ratko Mladic went on trial this year, and former Yugoslav and Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic died in 2006 before the end of his trial.
For years it seemed that the main suspects would stay out of the tribunal's reach, until political changes in the countries of southeastern Europe made it ever more difficult for suspects to hide. In July, Serbia announced it was investigating 13 people on suspicion of helping war criminals evade justice.
"You should never forget what the situation was before the ICTY," said Menno Kamminga, professor of law at Maastricht University. "In the past, the worst dictators were never tried. Idi Amin never went on trial. Today you have the prospect that they will be tried in the end."
At its outset, few expected the tribunal to revive a movement for international criminal justice that had been dormant since the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals after World War Two.
"But in fact it kickstarted a process which over the following 20 years led to other tribunals, for example for Rwanda, and to the International Criminal Court," said Param-Preet Singh of Human Rights Watch.
The tribunal's contributions to jurisprudence and forensic science have been revolutionary.
"The techniques used in uncovering mass graves in Srebrenica, working out how many people were killed and with what weapons, were new," said Singh. "It had never been done before on such a scale."
The last suspect may be on trial, but the ICTY's business still has several years to run, with eight cases under way and a further six under appeal.
It expects to rule on its final appeals by 2016. After that, any more cases arising from the Balkan wars of the 1990s must be tried in the countries where the crimes were committed.
In the meantime, its successors will have its experiences to draw on.
"The ICTY's weakness was that it didn't have its own police force," said Kamminga, noting that, in its early years, the court relied on pressure from the Western NATO alliance, distrusted or loathed by many of the protagonists, to get its suspects.
The ICC, which indicted the son of slain Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi last year, is now wrangling with the Libyan government over who will try his son, Saif al-Islam.
Reporting By Thomas Escritt; Editing by Kevin Liffey