War-crimes prosecutor raises heat

She is seeking NATO help today to finally nab top Yugoslav war-crimes

Carla del Ponte, the UN chief war-crimes prosecutor, arrives in Brussels today, looking for a few good cops. She intends to enlist the help of senior NATO officials to nab dozens of indicted war criminals still at large in the former Yugoslavia.

"I have no police force," says Ms. del Ponte, a former Swiss attorney general, whose English betrays her Swiss roots - mostly an Italian lilt, with the occasional flurry of German or French. "That is a weakness of our work.... It is true that the high responsibles of what has happened in former Yugoslavia are not under arrest, but we still hope, we still hope."

Del Ponte, who took over the tribunal in September 1999, is an energetic prosecutor, determined to bring some of the nastiest war criminals in the world to justice.

As such, the extraordinary ease with which high-profile fugitives escape justice grates on her.

The notorious leader of a paramilitary group indicted by the tribunal in 1997, for example, was gunned down in Belgrade last weekend. Zeljko Raznatovic was believed to have taken orders from top Serb officials and most likely would have implicated them, if he had been apprehended.

And the two most prominent fugitives - former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his military commander, Gen. Ratko Mladic - manage to evade NATO troops.

But del Ponte is keen to improve this situation. She plans "to make sure they give down instructions to be more pro-active for the arrest of the fugitives."

Del Ponte, and her staff of 850 for Yugoslavia, pursue those charged with serious violations of international humanitarian law: grave breaches of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, violations of the laws and customs of war, genocide, and crimes against humanity. So far, 12 have been prosecuted and found guilty, while 36 await trials.

The Yugoslav tribunal's budget - which covers every aspect of the investigations and prosecutions - has risen steadily from $276,000 in 1993 to a staggering $94 million this year.

But the talks in Brussels may be a bit tense. NATO officials and del Ponte also are expected to discuss allegations that NATO's airstrikes on Yugoslavia may have violated international laws as well. Her office revealed in December that the tribunal prepared a confidential report on NATO's 1999 spring operation. Del Ponte insists there is no formal investigation or prosecution under way. But the United States basically told her to keep her hands off NATO.

"I must do my job, otherwise I am not independent, and the independence of the prosecutor is the most important element," she says. "I just depend on the law, and that's it."

But she goes on to say, "It's not my priority, because I have inquiries about genocide, about bodies who are in mass graves, and that's what I am doing now, and what is very important."

Despite her many years pursuing organized crime - first in Italy and later in Russia (her last project was to investigate corruption at the Kremlin, which, she says, went "very high") - del Ponte has been overwhelmed by this job.

"I thought as a prosecutor now for more than 20 years, I saw all that is to know about violence," she says, slapping a report on the table. "But I didn't, because what I am now confronted with is incredible."

On a recent visit to Zagreb, Croatia, pathologists opened a freezer holding 500 corpses. "It's impossible to believe ... that they are killing each other in such a way," she says.

She is brisk in dismissing the latest spat over Kosovo - the numbers game in which some try to demonstrate that "only" a couple of thousand were killed and the totals exaggerated to justify the NATO bombing campaign.

A final accounting still awaits. But, del Ponte says, such critics depend on "a false interpretation. Because we said we have opened 160, 180 graves, we found 2,109 bodies. But that's just the work we have done last year. We have now 400 more [grave sites], we have many bodies that are buried, burned."

Del Ponte also plans to apply for a visa to visit Belgrade. She intends to persuade Serbian authorities to allow the tribunal in, despite the international arrest warrant issued for Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

"We have an inquiry about [Kosovo Liberation Army] activities [against Serbs in Kosovo], and we have some difficulties here, because the victims are Serbs and are living now in Serbia, and we are not allowed to enter," she says.

But Del Ponte also is optimistic that President Milosevic will one day stand in the dock at The Hague. "While he is in place, no, but I hope that will change."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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