Justice on trial in Yugoslavia

March 31 deadline looms for Belgrade to begin cooperating with Hague war- crimes tribunal.

By , and contributor, to The Christian Science Monitor

When a popular uprising toppled former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic last October, nobody was happier than the chief prosecutor at the international war-crimes tribunal, Carla del Ponte.

The new reformist rulers in Belgrade - anxious, she hoped for good relations with Washington and Europe - would surely hand their old enemy over to the United Nations court in The Hague, where he has been indicted for alleged atrocities in Kosovo.

Four months later, Ms. del Ponte is still waiting. And as the Yugoslav government plays for time, the signs are that she will have to wait quite a bit longer to bring the West's bete noire to the dock.

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Mr. Milosevic is living under surveillance, but not under arrest, in Belgrade. He is lucky that his successor, President Vojislav Kostunica, is mistrustful of the tribunal, sharing the view of many Yugoslavs that it is an anti-Serb tool of the West. Kostunica also apparently fears that handing Milosevic over to the tribunal would make the former strongman a popular martyr.

But unless Belgrade starts cooperating with the Hague tribunal by March 31, Washington has threatened to cut off a $100 million aid package. More critically, the United States has vowed to block any help from multilateral lenders such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, which Yugoslavia urgently needs to refinance its $12 billion foreign debt.

The European Union is also applying pressure. Brussels is making a $223 million economic aid package this year conditional on cooperation with the UN tribunal.

At the same time, no Western leader wants to be too hard on the reformist Mr. Kostunica. They would prefer to encourage him to join their ranks rather than isolate him - which gives him room to maneuver.

Everything hinges on what Western capitals choose to regard as a satisfactory level of cooperation with the tribunal. "What that means exactly, the administration has yet to define, but there are no specific demands," US Ambassador to Belgrade William Montgomery told the Belgrade daily 'Blic' recently.

Yugoslav officials say they are ready to make some gestures, but that they will make choices. "Cooperation with the tribunal does not mean automatically complying with the court's every demand," Yugoslav Prime Minister Zoran Zizic told reporters last week.

Ms. del Ponte herself this week showed signs of flexibility. After a day of meetings with EU officials in Brussels Monday, she said "it is not a question of demanding that Serbia (the dominant Yugoslav republic) hand over Milosevic to the tribunal tomorrow." But she did insist on a "concrete sign of their willingness to cooperate" without delay.

Kostunica, who received del Ponte only reluctantly and very coldly during her recent visit to Belgrade, has called cooperation with her court "a process." European Commission President Romano Prodi echoed that approach Monday, saying "we urge the young democracy to cooperate with the tribunal. This must be done in a progressive way."

The Yugoslav government's key argument in refusing to hand Milosevic over is that its Constitution forbids extradition of Yugoslav citizens, and that a new law would be needed to authorize cooperation with the war-crimes tribunal. Justice Minister Momcilo Grubac warned on Monday that it might take "several months" for such legislation to be drafted and win parliamentary approval.

Among the 15 fugitives from the tribunal who are thought to be living in Serbia, however, are some non-Yugoslav citizens, and observers in Belgrade believe they might prove useful pawns for fashioning a compromise between Kostunica and the West.

"There has been pressure on a number of non-Yugoslav citizens living in Belgrade to turn themselves in voluntarily as a sign of good faith," said a Serbian official who asked not to be identified.

On Monday del Ponte urged Belgrade to "start transferring those suspects whom the Yugoslav authorities have no justification for continuing to protect," even if the government felt unable to hand over Milosevic immediately.

Although Milosevic is not expected to appear at the international war-crimes tribunal in the immediate future, he may soon find himself in a local court, officials in Belgrade say.

Senior government figures have been predicting his imminent arrest for some weeks, but the possible charges against him remain unclear. They range from corruption, through electoral fraud, to war crimes during the Bosnian war.

"The problem with rushing the Milosevic trial is that there is very little solid evidence against him right now except for a bad real estate deal," says a source familiar with the investigation. "And we cannot possibly put Milosevic on trial on such a frivolous charge."

Under international law, the UN tribunal has primacy over local courts in war crimes trials, but officials in Belgrade are unwilling to recognize this.

"This is a question of catharsis," says Dusan Batakovic, president of the Council for Democratic Change, an influential think tank which played a major role in bringing the reformists to power. "We need Serbs to recognize what was done in their name which contributed to the Balkan disaster."

At the same time, he adds, "there is a strong sense in the country that Yugoslavia must protect its sovereignty and address its problems itself first."

This argument does not wash with tribunal officials. "The law is very clear," says Florence Hartmann, spokeswoman for del Ponte. "Domestic courts have the authority to prosecute smaller offenses ... but for war crimes and crimes against humanity, we have primacy."

In Belgrade, however, officials seem confident that they have convinced the new US administration not to insist on Milosevic's transfer to The Hague, at least for now.

"We want all those who have committed crimes to be held responsible, we want them to answer before our institutions ... to give [a] chance to our courts because they are competent," said Zoran Djindjic, prime minister of Serbia, on returning from Washington earlier this month. "My impression is that we have secured an understanding in the State Department."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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