Tough new war crimes prosecutor

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

A tough Swiss prosecutor is about to take on indicted war criminals - including Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic - for the United Nations' war crimes tribunals in The Hague.

Carla del Ponte, who takes up her new post Sept. 15, has proved over a long career that she is not afraid to go after the new wave of international Russian criminals, South American drug traffickers, or the more traditional Italian mafia.

Widely admired for her determination and courage, Ms. del Ponte was nearly killed in a bomb explosion in Sicily while investigating money laundering by the Mafia in 1988. The prosecutor now lives under heavy police protection and is accompanied by bodyguards on her daily jog.

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"There is no question that she is a strong woman, energetic, with plenty of will power," says Dominique Poncet, a Geneva attorney who has defended a number of high-profile clients.

The elegant and reserved del Ponte takes over the two tribunals - for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda - at a crucial time in their brief history. Her predecessor, Louise Arbour, is widely credited with successfully imposing the two courts on the world scene despite a lack of political will and resources when they were first created by the UN Security Council in 1993 and 1994. Experts see this new appointment as another sign that the international community is finally serious about prosecuting war criminals.

The two special courts have the power to accuse any person, including a sitting head of state, of war crimes. To date the two bodies have judged 12 cases, with more than 60 prisoners charged with war crimes in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia still awaiting trial.

Given her success in raising the profile of the tribunals, Arbour will be a tough act to follow. International lawyers say the performance of the two courts in the coming months is likely to prove crucial for the future credibility of the permanent International Court of Justice scheduled to come into being once 60 countries finish ratifying the treaty that created it

Del Ponte was strongly backed by the United States because of her close cooperation with the Drug Enforcement Administration in pursuing money laundering operations, even allowing DEA agents to work in Switzerland with Swiss police.

But while Western nations and human rights organizations are reacting favorably to del Ponte's appointment, her numerous legal and media critics in Switzerland say she leaves behind a mixed record at best.

They charge her with acting impulsively and having little to show for her considerable efforts. "Many of the cases she pursued made lots of noise but did not result in anything concrete,"says Elio Brunetti, a Swiss attorney in Lugano who knows del Ponte well.

THESE critics point to the case of Serguei Mikhailov as an example. The alleged chief of the Russian mafia was acquitted by a Geneva court last year on charges of money laundering.

"The Swiss economy is increasingly undermined by the mafias from Eastern Europe, and we estimate that more than 300 Swiss companies have already been infiltrated by them," del Ponte told a Swiss newspaper before her nomination. She blamed the acquittal on the highly decentralized Swiss judicial system's inability to deal with international crime.

Del Ponte also has been criticized for the way she handled the case of Raul Salinas, who is in a Mexican prison for allegedly laundering drug money while his brother, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, was president. A Swiss federal court ruled last month that del Ponte had abused her power by seizing $118 million from Mr. Salinas's Swiss bank accounts. It ruled that the prosecutor had the right to freeze the accounts during the investigation, but not to confiscate the money.

Critics also charge that her methods have harmed Swiss banks unnecessarily.

"The result of her battle against bank secrecy has been to lead a number of big and perfectly legitimate Swiss banks to relocate. That is not good for Switzerland," says Ms. Poncet, the attorney.

Meanwhile, del Ponte seems unmoved by the criticism. "He who does not have thick skin should choose another field of work," she said recently.

As bringing Mr. Milosevic before the court, "it is naturally a priority ... that these people appear before a court."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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