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Bosnia/Yugoslavia: Governments Resist Transfers, Cooperation On War Criminals

  • Alexandra Poolos

Bosnian Serb wartime leader Radovan Karadzic and his military commander, Ratko Mladic, are among the most prominent suspects wanted by the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague. They are accused of genocide and crimes against humanity for their actions during the Bosnian war, but the two men are still on the run. Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic says he will not order police to track down Mladic, who is believed to be hiding in Belgrade, because it could provoke a civil war, while Bosnian Serb authorities are not actively pursuing Karadzic and are simply calling on war crimes suspects to turn themselves in to the tribunal.

Prague, 27 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- With former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's war crimes trial in full swing in The Hague, attention has turned to prominent war crimes suspects still at large, most notably Bosnian Serb wartime leader Radovan Karadzic and military commander Ratko Mladic.

Mladic and Karadzic are both accused of involvement in the deaths of thousands of Bosnian Muslims in the 1992-95 war. Mladic is believed to be hiding in Serbia, allegedly living under the protection of soldiers of the Yugoslav Army, while Karadzic is rumored to be moving around in Republika Srpska, the predominately Serb half of Bosnia.

The start of Milosevic's trial in The Hague in February, however, appears to have intensified the resistance of some within the Yugoslav and Serb republican governments to turn over alleged war criminals or cooperate with Hague investigators.

Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica has consistently opposed The Hague tribunal. He calls it a political organ based on "hypocrisy." Now, the attitude of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic -- previously an advocate of tribunal cooperation as a means of receiving Western aid and support -- seems to be cooling toward the tribunal as well.

After a recent meeting with the UN High Representative for Bosnia, Wolfgang Petritsch, Djindjic called Milosevic's trial an "expensive circus" with "insignificant witnesses."

And in a recent interview with the German news weekly "Der Spiegel," Djindjic said it would be too risky to try to arrest Mladic. "What if civil war breaks out?" he is quoted as saying. "The price is too high."

In a recent interview with RFE/RL's South Slavic service earlier, Djindjic said it is unfair to expect Serbian police to arrest Mladic when UN troops in Bosnia were unable to do so when Mladic was believed to be hiding there during the past five years.

"I don't know what would happen in Serbia if some young policeman were killed, or [if] somebody from Mladic's security guards [were killed] in an action to arrest Mladic," Djindjic said. "I don't want to take that risk, the risk of carrying out the tribunal's bidding. So that's why I said our maximum [commitment] is to prevent Serbia from becoming an asylum for these people. So we are asking all these guys to leave Serbia, or [we] will indirectly force them to. But to expect us to do something that the international forces in Bosnia didn't want to do, I don't see that as my duty. I said that quite openly to [UN war crimes tribunal chief prosecutor] Carla Del Ponte and to the rest of them."

Florence Hartmann, the spokeswoman for The Hague prosecution, said Djindjic does not have much authority to apprehend war criminals or cooperate with The Hague. The real power, she said, is held by Kostunica's federal government, which controls the agencies overseeing the army and the national archives.

"We have a big problem in Yugoslavia with the obstruction of the federal authorities. And this is clear in the case of Ratko Mladic, who is still in Serbia under the protection of the army," Hartmann said. "It's up to the federal institution and the government of President Vojislav Kostunica to take the political decision to stop harboring fugitives and to hand them over. It's a political decision. We are pushing Yugoslavia to make this decision and turn them over. All people linked with army and federal institutions are not available for the tribunal. I'm not just talking about fugitives, also for interviews about the investigations we are conducting. We need to have access to people and archives, and it's totally closed to us by the federal government."

Kostunica insists new laws are needed to smooth the extradition process and is pushing for draft legislation that would give only the federal government the authority to arrest and extradite war crimes suspects to The Hague.

In the case of Mladic, Kostunica has said little publicly, and the press office for the Yugoslav government declined to comment on the subject to RFE/RL. But Predrag Simic, an adviser to Kostunica, recently told "The Washington Post" that federal leaders worry pressure from the West would continue even if Mladic is apprehended. Simic was referring to reports of a secret list of potential Yugoslav indictees in The Hague.

"We don't know if this can ever be over," Simic said.

James Lyon, the Serbia Project director of the International Crisis Group, accuses the Yugoslav army of protecting Mladic.

"The army, the VJ, has been protecting Mladic for quite some time. He is in the vicinity of Belgrade. Sometimes he's been in Belgrade, sometimes he's been on the outskirts. Sometimes he's been in his own home, sometimes he's been in military bases," Lyon said. "But the fact is, he's being protected, and a lot of this goes back to the army chief-of-staff, General [Nebojsa] Pavkovic, who is very dead-set against cooperating with The Hague because he was commanding the Third Army that was in Kosovo during the NATO bombardment. So he himself may find himself on an indictment list. In other words, there's a lot of deep-seated animosity towards The Hague. There are a lot of old-guardists. In addition to the old guard, there are a series of people who, for their own personal reasons, are all protecting Mr. Mladic and other war criminals."

Djindjic is between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, the reformist prime minister faces tremendous Western pressure to hand over war criminals in exchange for foreign aid worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Washington is conditioning its portion of aid to Belgrade on the handover of indicted war criminals and has set 31 March as a deadline to evaluate that cooperation. In 2001, after Milosevic was turned over, some $1.2 billion of reconstruction aid was pledged by Western donors, with the U.S. giving some $130 million.

But Lyon said Djindjic isn't joking when he says he risks a civil war if he attempts to use his Interior Ministry police troops to arrest Mladic.

"He [Djindjic] could probably effectively arrest him, but it would involve a fire-fight between VJ troops and the Interior Ministry soldiers. And there's a question as to whether the Interior Ministry are loyal enough to the concept of The Hague tribunal to actually want to get into a fight with VJ troops. Second of all, once you have the fight start, where does civil war begin and end off? And would such an armed conflict inside of Serbia over one man cause the Djindjic government to collapse?" Lyon said. "There's a very good possibility it would."

But Lyon said the biggest obstacle to Mladic's transfer to The Hague is widespread public opinion in Yugoslavia against the war crimes tribunal. Lyon said the tribunal prosecution has done a "terrible job" so far in the trial, especially in terms of presenting its opening arguments against Milosevic and calling the first two witnesses.

"Right now, public opinion about The Hague is not very good," Lyon said. "The reporting in the papers of the Milosevic trial has been extremely negative. The first two witnesses who appeared did not give The Hague much credibility. The public here thought Milosevic did a masterful job in his opening argument."

Lyon said no one in the Yugoslav media has explored Mladic's culpability in the 1995 murders in Srebrenica of 7,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys. Worse, Lyon said, Mladic and Karadzic are actually seen as heroes for their actions in the Bosnian war. The two men adorn T-shirts and calendars sold on the streets of Belgrade.

Lyon said the war criminal issue must be dealt with if Yugoslavia is to join the international community.

"This is an issue that could make or break the whole government here. And it could make or break the future of Yugoslavia because Yugoslavia will never be able to clean up its own past or clean up its own current government in terms of organized crime and other issues until they deal with the war criminal issue," Lyon said. "So many of the war criminals are interconnected with the politicians and with the mafia elements. There's a lot of back-scratching going on, because many of the people who were war criminals were making a lot of money during the wars on illegal activities, such as smuggling, weapons sales, etc."

As for Karadzic, the war crime tribunal's Del Ponte, on a visit to Banja Luka earlier in February, urged Bosnian Serbian Prime Minister Mladen Ivanic to bring him to justice. She said the tribunal is certain Karadzic is in Republika Srpska.

Authorities in the Serb-controlled part of Bosnia have not handed in a single Serb suspect to the tribunal but instead have issued formal warnings to war crimes suspects to voluntarily surrender.

The Hague's Hartmann said, "In the case of Banja Luka and the Serbian entity in Bosnia, there are many people at large in this territory. There are no arrests and no change of attitude in their cooperation. They are capable of full cooperation in the cases against non-Serbs, but they are not cooperating on the opposite side. We went 10 days ago to Banja Luka, and the prosecutor [Del Ponte] insisted on the fact that they have to locate Karadzic, who is obviously in Republika Srpska, that [it] is important that he is handed over to the tribunal after six years at large."

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