Husband and wife Jefferson natives Pat McNulty and Mary Kundrat are at The Hague in the Netherlands, where McNulty, a retired Des Moines attorney, is a witness to history through his internship with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the first international war crimes tribunal since Nuremberg and Tokyo at the close of World War II. McNulty helped cross-examine a witness in the genocide and war crimes trial of Bosnian Serb Gen. Ratko Mladic (left), who’s accused of executing 7,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in 1995. Their remains (right) were found in mass graves.

Christmas at The Hague

Some people go to Disney World. This Christmas, Jefferson’s Pat McNulty is helping prosecute a Bosnian war criminal.


’Twas the night before Christmas, when all through The Hague, not a creature in the detention facility was stirring, except for maybe an elderly Bosnian Serb army commander on trial for genocide.

No, it doesn’t rhyme.

Then again, for Pat McNulty, there’s hardly anything traditional about the way he’s spending this Christmas.

He’s far from his own bed, and after the testimony he’s read, might have visions of mass graves dancing in his head.

The Jefferson native, now officially retired after a 36-year law career in Des Moines, is at The Hague in the Netherlands, helping the United Nations prosecute Gen. Ratko Mladic, on trial for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes for his role in the conflict between 1992 and 1995 that claimed more than 100,000 lives in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the former Yugoslavia.

“What’s this kid from Jefferson doing in The Hague?” McNulty, 64, has found himself asking ever since he began work in the Office of the Prosecutor in September.

Technically, McNulty is just an intern.

“Needless to say,” he confessed, “I’m the oldest intern.”

The 1969 graduate of Jefferson Community High School — who served as assistant attorney general for the state of Iowa from 1977 to 1981 before joining the firm of Grefe & Sidney, where he retired as a senior partner — thought an internship with the U.N. tribunal sounded “fascinating.”

He went online and applied.

“It’s really a small role,” McNulty explained by phone, “but there’s a sense of history.”

“My role is small,” he reiterated, “but I’m witnessing it.”

What he’s a witness to is the first international war crimes tribunal since World War II, when trials in Nuremberg, Germany, and Tokyo sent surviving Nazi and Japanese leaders to the gallows.

Those trials introduced the terms “crimes against humanity” and “war crimes.”

The death penalty is now off the table, but the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, or ICTY, was established back in 1993 to hold those in senior positions accountable for a litany of horrific crimes across the Balkans following the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe.

“The facts are incredibly gruesome,” McNulty said.

Mladic has been on trial since May 2012, having been captured in 2011 after evading arrest for 16 years.

“He’s pretty calm,” McNulty said, describing Mladic in court. “He’s 72 years old, and he looks like he’s 72 years old.”

The trials themselves seem to be about as complex as the very ethnic fighting that ripped apart Yugoslavia in the ’90s.

Since the tribunal opened, 161 people have been indicted, with 80 sentences and 18 acquittals. The trials have so far generated 2.5 million pages of transcripts.

A judgment in Mladic’s trial isn’t expected until November 2017.

Three judges will decide whether he’ll spend the rest of his life in prison.

“I think they’re up to 7,000 exhibits in the prosecution case,” McNulty said.

McNulty is one of more than a dozen interns assisting with document collection and preparation — tasks he was doing, he said, as a 25-year-old lawyer in Des Moines.

“There’s never a dull moment,” he said.

Needless to say, though, this is new territory for a longtime civil lawyer.

“Our generation,” McNulty explained, “we grew up and all we knew about war crimes was watching Spencer Tracy in ‘Judgment at Nuremberg.’ That’s my point of reference.”

Some things have gone unchanged from the photos of Nazis on trial at Nuremberg, particularly the two guards flanking a headphones-clad defendant.

Since September, McNulty has been in court once, when he helped cross-examine a Portuguese diplomat who tried unsuccessfully to broker peace talks in Bosnia in 1992.

“I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything,” he said.

Lawyers are there from all over the world, he said, and the interns are mostly young lawyers from Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia.

“There’s a part of you that wishes you were in there asking questions,” McNulty said. “You can’t get rid of that impulse.”

Mladic, McNulty said, was “the number one guy in the Bosnian Serb army,” and at one point was the most wanted man in Europe.

“The case appears to be strong,” McNulty said, adding that Mladic’s motion for acquittal in 2014 was denied. “These are very serious charges, one of which is genocide.”

Mladic is accused of executing at least 7,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in the town of Srebrenica in July 1995, an act the tribunal ruled to be genocide.

It marked the worst mass murder in Europe since World War II.

He’s also accused of establishing and carrying out a campaign of sniping and shelling against the civilian population of Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital.

McNulty described the proceedings as fascinating and gruesome at the same time.

“It’s opened my eyes to international law,” he said.

Admittedly, he didn’t know much about the 1990s turmoil in the Balkans.

He remembers his daughters in Urbandale attending school with Bosnian Muslims who came to Iowa during the war, and he recalls a Time magazine cover of emaciated Muslims in a Serbian prison camp that eerily recalled scenes from World War II.

The ICTY is trying war crimes and crimes against humanity committed between 1991 and 2001 across the former Yugoslavian republics of Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia.

For Americans at least, the many conflicts were personified by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, who supported Serb separatists like Mladic in Bosnia.

Milosevic died of a heart attack in 2006 while in detention at The Hague, four years into his own trial in which he defended himself.

McNulty will continue to play his small role in history through February, when his internship ends.

His wife of 33 years, Mary Kundrat, a classmate in the class of ’69, is with him in the Netherlands.

When asked what she thought about his task at The Hague, he’s quick to note that he sought her permission before applying.

But it hasn’t been all work and no play.

“All roads eventually lead to Jefferson,” McNulty said.

This fall, he and Mary caught a show in Amsterdam by Dick Oatts, the jazz saxophonist who graduated from Jefferson two years after them, in 1971.

“You’re never too far from Jefferson,” he said.

“Needless to say,” McNulty added, “he was a bit surprised.”

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