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Yugoslavia: Tribunal Rules Out Belgrade War Crimes Trial For Milosevic

The UN war crimes tribunal has strongly rejected Belgrade's calls for former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic to be tried for war crimes in Serbia instead of at the tribunal's base in the Netherlands. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz spoke to the prosecutor's office at the tribunal and files this story.

Prague, 8 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The UN war crimes tribunal is rejecting suggestions from Belgrade that former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic be tried for war crimes in Serbia instead of the Hague, where the tribunal is based.

Florence Hartmann, a spokeswoman for prosecutor's office of the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia, tells RFE/RL that a trial in Belgrade against Milosevic is not a matter to be negotiated.

She says it would be impossible to conduct a fair trial against Milosevic in Belgrade. She also says many non-Serb witnesses against Milosevic would be intimidated and would not travel to Serbia to testify -- even if the trial were presided over by the UN Tribunal.

Hartmann says the tribunal has previously denied Croatia's requests to conduct trials against former Croatian officials in Zagreb because Serb witnesses and war crimes victims would risk attack and trauma in order to testify.

"The position of the prosecutor's office is that there will be no trial in Belgrade for Milosevic or any other senior former Yugoslav official. I don't believe that in Belgrade it is possible to give the same conditions of protection to everybody that they could get at The Hague. And witnesses coming from the inside of the Milosevic regime, somebody testifying against Milosevic, not get the protection they could get outside of the country. The Hague is a neutral zone."

Vladan Batic, who is expected to become justice minister when a new Serbian government is formed in the coming weeks, said yesterday that Milosevic could be tried in Belgrade for war crimes. Batic said a trial in Serbia is being increasingly mentioned as a realistic possibility.

Yugoslav president Vojislav Kostunica and other top officials have consistently refused to extradite Milosevic to The Hague for trial, saying any such trial should be held in Serbia.

Batic described a trial in Serbia as a compromise with the international community, which has been demanding the extradition to The Hague of Milosevic and several senior officials in his regime.

"We should act quickly. We should establish the system of responsibility and we should put on trial each one of those who brought this nation down to where we are now. We should put them behind bars. To be very specific, no one in Serbia will be free as long as Milosevic is free."

The idea of trying Milosevic in Serbia was raised last week when Yugoslav Foreign Minister Goran Svilanovic visited Washington for talks with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

"During that conversation, I told them our position is that we insist the trial should be within the territory of our country, but we are ready for full cooperation with the ICTY. And I express my readiness to talk to Del Ponte when she visits Yugoslavia."

Albright said after the talks that the United States does not oppose a trial in Serbia against Milosevic as long as it is conducted by The Hague tribunal. For that to happen, the trial also must be agreed to by chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte.

Despite Svilanovic's pledge to cooperate with ICTY, Hartmann says she knows of no proposal from Belgrade that would allow the judges and prosecutors from the tribunal to take an active role in any trial within Serbia.

"I'm not sure Belgrade authorities are making any kind of proposal for an ICTY trial in Belgrade. They are looking for the ICTY as monitors -- monitoring a trial in Belgrade. But even if it were an ICTY trial in Belgrade, it's not possible to organize it in Belgrade."

Hartmann also rejected the legitimacy of any court, other than the UN tribunal, which attempts to conduct a war crimes trial against Milosevic.

She said that under international law, the Hague tribunal has primary jurisdiction in the matter. She also noted that Yugoslavia is bound to respect the ICTY's primacy under its obligations as a member of the United Nations.

Unless the UN tribunal decides to hand the trial to a domestic court, Hartmann says any trial against Milosevic has no value or validity -- and that its decision means nothing.