Hague Portraits Capture Court Tensions

A Dutch artist reveals war crimes suspects in a new light.

New Tribunal Exhibits

Portraits capture tension of the Hague courtrooms.

By Neil Arun in The Hague

“You can tell this is an impatient man, frustrated by the position he finds himself in,” said top Dutch lawyer Michail Wladimiroff, standing before a portrait of former Serb strongman, Slobodan Milosevic.

Court portraiture is a long tradition across the world – an art that developed because photography is banned in most courtrooms.

The Hague is different – blanket television coverage is one of the features of the tribunal, a device to allow people in the Balkans to see for themselves the proceedings as they unfold.

Nonetheless, the tribunal has kept up the tradition of portraiture – and is now displaying an exhibition by Dutch artist, Johan van der Woel.

Wladimiroff says the pictures give some sense of the drama and tension of the characters in what are some of the most high-profile trials anywhere in the world.

“To a casual visitor, these trials can seem lengthy and dull,” he said. “But those who come here regularly know that there are a lot of strong emotions involved. These paintings record those emotions.”

Wladimiroff is no stranger to the surly ex-president’s outbursts. Until his controversial exit from The Hague last year, he was an amicus, or friend-of-the-court, advising it on Milosevic’s rights as he was tried for war crimes.

He made his remarks at the opening of an exhibition of oil paintings featuring tribunal indictees, judges, lawyers, witnesses and security guards.

Wladimiroff left his job as amicus in unusual circumstances, after Milosevic complained of a press interview in which the lawyer apparently said Milosevic’s defence was unlikely to get him acquitted.

Now back running his busy law firm in The Hague, Wladimiroff was happy to comment on the portraits surrounding him – many of familiar faces.

Van der Woel began painting the oil-on-canvas portraits from the courtroom press gallery in October 2000.

He says he was struck by how slowly the trials went, “Things are going faster now that Judge May is handling the Milosevic trial. But there is still a real danger that the tribunal could end up taking longer than the war itself.”

Wladimiroff echoed the artist’s view, saying judges have to become less exhaustive, to avoid further delays. “We should keep in mind that these trials are not about rewriting history,” he said, singling out the early phases of Milosevic’s trial – for war crimes in Kosovo – as particularly laborious.

Van der Woel says he was struck by a similarity between the work of the lawyer and the artist – in the way both of them expand upon a short, specific moment in time.

“Often a whole day’s argument in the courtroom would hinge on (for example) one or two seconds at a checkpoint many years ago, where someone was shot.

“Similarly, when painting, I spend ages trying to capture the truth behind a particular moment, a moment when a certain expression appears on the person’s face.”

He says he did not take sides or judge the people he was painting, “I was not there to make any moral judgments. I was more concerned about the technical problems of painting in a courtroom.”

The biggest challenge in the courtroom, he says, was the quality of light – too bright to allow for any contrast.

Mixing paints for the portraits, he found himself reaching for the darker tones.

Neil Arun is an IWPR contributor.

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