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Yugoslavia: Tribunal's Del Ponte Fails To Persuade Kostunica

  • Jolyon Naegele

The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, Carla Del Ponte, is in Belgrade this week for talks with Yugoslav officials. Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica, who initially refused to receive her and then changed his mind, appears to have so angered Del Ponte that she stormed out of their meeting yesterday. RFE/RL's Jolyon Naegele reports that Kostunica's differences with Del Ponte are considerable.

Prague, 24 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The Hague tribunal's chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, a former Swiss justice minister, arrived in Belgrade on 23 January at the start of a three-day visit. She was armed with a secret tribunal indictment and a demand that indicted former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic be extradited to The Hague.

After meeting with Del Ponte yesterday, Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica issued a statement accusing the tribunal of bias because most of those it has indicted for war crimes are Serbs.

In May 1999, the tribunal indicted Milosevic for war crimes committed in Kosovo. Similar indictments were issued at the time for Milosevic's former Yugoslav army chief of staff, Dragoljub Ojdanic, Milosevic's deputy prime minister, Nikola Sainovic, Serbian President Milan Milutinovic, and Interior Minister Vlajko Stojiljkovic

The tribunal believes that an additional 10 suspects are living in Serbia. They include former Bosnian Serb army commander Ratko Mladic, who is wanted for the 1995 massacre of some 7,000 people in Srebrenica.

Some government ministers in Belgrade have shown interest in cooperating with the tribunal's investigation. But Kostunica, a constitutional lawyer with Serbian nationalist views, has not been receptive at all.

In an interview published in today's "International Herald Tribune," Kostunica ruled out extraditing Milosevic. He said: "Until our country is stabilized and democratized to the full, until it establishes genuinely democratic institutions, any legal actions could turn into a mockery of justice and mere revenge."

Still, Kostunica said he "would be willing to see [Milosevic] stand trial on war crimes and domestic charges here in Yugoslavia." And he said in another interview -- which he gave just before meeting Del Ponte -- that the chief prosecutor's behavior is "destabilizing" the situation in Serbia.

Del Ponte had intended, as a symbol of good will, to hand over the sealed indictment she brought with her to Yugoslav authorities -- provided they pledged to maintain the secrecy of the indicted suspect's identity. But it is still unclear whether she offered the document to Kostunica.

Del Ponte cancelled a news briefing that was to have followed her meeting with the president. She left prematurely and visibly angry. Her spokeswoman, Florence Hartman, was asked about the meeting and whether Del Ponte had handed over the sealed indictment. Hartman declined to offer details. "She [Del Ponte] wants to give [the materials] to the Yugoslav authorities, to the appropriate ministers, not to the president of Yugoslavia, but rather to those in charge of the responsible organs."

Kostunica had initially refused to see Del Ponte, saying he was too busy and that there were other officials more qualified to speak with her. But under pressure from members of his own government, he relented. Kostunica told reporters while on a visit to Sarajevo last week that he had changed his mind, as he put it, "because of the latest developments."

Those developments, he noted, include the recently publicized legacy of depleted uranium in the armor-piercing ammunition NATO used in Yugoslavia nearly two years ago. Kostunica also spoke out against Del Ponte's opposition to indicting NATO officials for war crimes and The Hague tribunal's practice of sealed indictments. That practice, he said, has no parallel in the history of the rule of law.

Curiously, Kostunica -- responding to an article in a German newspaper -- also said he wanted to talk to Del Ponte about the massacre of civilian residents of the Kosovo village of Racak two years ago.

The daily "Berliner Zeitung" reported Monday that a panel of Finnish, Belarusian, and Serbian forensic experts, in a final account of the circumstances of the deaths of the Racak victims, found no evidence of a massacre by Serbian security forces.

"The new data, the new perception about what actually happened in Racak, in the village Racak, at the beginning of 1999 -- where for sure now there was one manipulation with the real facts that maybe led to some further manipulation -- including the Rambouillet conference and later on the beginning of the bombing on March 24 of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia."

The international community and the residents of Racak, 30 kilometers southwest of Pristina, contend that on January 15, 1999, Serbian forces massacred 45 Albanian residents of the village. William Walker, the Kosovo mission chief of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, blamed the Milosevic regime. Later, the Racak massacre became a key element in the indictments of Milosevic and the four other Serbian and Yugoslav officials.

Belgrade has always claimed that the victims were members of the ethnic Albanian insurgent Kosovo Liberation Army, an accusation Racak residents deny. Serbian authorities confiscated the bodies for several days and subsequently buried them.

The massacre left 222 village children fatherless. It led the international community to hold a conference with Serbian and Kosovar Albanian representatives at Rambouillet, near Paris, in the hope of reaching an agreement to force a withdrawal of Serbian forces from Kosovo and a NATO occupation of the province. The Albanians signed, the Serbs declined, and on March 24, 1999, NATO launched air strikes that lasted 78 days.

Kostunica's rejection of Racak as a premise for Milosevic's indictment as a war criminal may well have been one of the causes of Del Ponte's abrupt and angry departure from the meeting. Her spokeswoman says Del Ponte will not comment on the talks until just prior to her departure from Belgrade tomorrow (Thursday).

Del Ponte has just gotten substantial outside support that may help persuade Kostunica to rethink his stand. The Council of Europe today warned Yugoslavia that it will only be considered for full membership if it cooperates with The Hague tribunal.

Council secretary general Walter Schwimmer said today in Strasbourg:

"We have offered them [the Yugoslavs] many possibilities of assistance, but we are also very clear [about] the conditions for membership. And one of the conditions for membership for the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia is full cooperation with the international criminal tribunal in The Hague. We made this very clear."

On Monday, the council's Parliamentary Assembly granted Yugoslavia special guest status, the usual precursor to full membership.

While in Belgrade, Del Ponte has also being meeting with representatives of NGOs and the relatives of victims of the Milosevic regime. One of those she met with is Jova Curuvija, the brother of independently-minded newspaper ("Dnevni Telegraf") publisher Slavko Curuvija. The Yugoslav secret police are suspected of having shot him on April 11, 1999, two-and-a-half weeks after NATO launched its air strikes.

Curuvija said later:

"Mrs. Del Ponte listened to me attentively. Judging by her questions, she showed she was interested in this case and she told me that she will request that the appropriate authorities in this country hand over all the necessary data and that she will inform me of any further steps she takes."

Del Ponte also spoke to Zanka Stojanovic, whose son was one of 16 people killed when a NATO missile struck the Belgrade building of Serbian Radio and Television, or RTS, following an alliance warning to evacuate. Serbian authorities reportedly barred RTS personnel from leaving the building despite the warning. Stojanovic said:

"[Del Ponte] told me that she has information from a senior official in the NATO alliance that Milosevic had received news -- apparently from a senior member of the former regime -- probably from state security, that RTS was to be attacked. The Hague tribunal believes this and I have gained a friend in my struggle for truth and justice."

Stojanovic broke down in tears as she said the war criminals must be brought to justice.

"I think her presence here today helped a lot. This is a step after 21 months. I know this won't bring back my son and that I'll be alone, but I told Mrs. Carla that Milosevic and all those with him [have to be brought to justice]."

Stojanovic summed up: "My family was completely destroyed. My son was killed at RTS, and I won't forgive Milosevic."