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Yugoslavia: Lawyers Fight Decree To Extradite Milosevic To The Hague

Lawyers for Slobodan Milosevic say they will go to a high court today to challenge a government decree enabling the former Yugoslav leader to be sent to the UN war crimes tribunal in as soon as 10 days. Milosevic's lawyers say they will demand that the Constitutional Court put the decree on hold until it rules on its legality. The Yugoslav government on 23 June adopted the decree, which formalizes "full cooperation" with The Hague-based tribunal, and addresses the issue of extradition.

Prague, 25 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- This weekend the Yugoslav cabinet approved a decree that potentially opens the way for Slobodan Milosevic's extradition to the UN war crimes tribunal at The Hague.

The degree is the result of a long internal debate and a U.S. threat to boycott a conference of aid donors slated to begin this Friday in Brussels. The ruling gives authority to transfer all individuals from the Yugoslav republics of Serbia and Montenegro to The Hague tribunal and makes clear that suspects need not be tried first in local courts.

Milosevic, who has been imprisoned in Serbia on corruption charges, is wanted in The Hague for charges of crimes against humanity for the crackdown carried out by security forces in Kosovo against ethnic Albanians in 1999. Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic and other officials have signaled that they expect his extradition to occur within three weeks after the appeals process is exhausted.

Florence Hartmann, the spokeswoman for the chief prosecutor at The Hague, says the decree might not mean anything new. In a phone interview with RFE/RL, she said the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has been reluctant to comment on the decree and will wait until the extradition actually takes place:

"Our position is the same for the last six months. Yugoslavia, as a UN member state, has to cooperate with the tribunal. It's an international obligation. The fact that they are announcing that they will cooperate doesn't mean that they are starting to cooperate. The cooperation hasn't started and we are waiting."

Lawyers for Milosevic say the tribunal may have a long wait. Yesterday chief lawyer Tom Fila said he would fight any attempt to send Milosevic for trial outside the country, since extradition is forbidden under Yugoslavia's criminal law. The government contends that international covenants trump Yugoslav law in this case.

The issue at hand is whether sending Milosevic to The Hague constitutes an extradition to a foreign country -- or a transference. James Lyon, a Serbia-based analyst with the International Crisis Group, says under the decree Milosevic would be transferred to The Hague. He says Yugoslavia is obligated to do because it is a UN member:

"Essentially, a lot of it depends on what you wish to define sending someone to The Hague as. Is it a transference, or is it an extradition? In my mind, it should be a transference, and therefore this decree should be legal, because all it does is establish a judicial procedure that is to be followed to give due process of law to the indictee, prior to their being transferred. Now everyone is welcoming this as a step forward, but the problem is [that], under this procedure, it will take at least 15 days procedurally from the day that a motion is filed to indict someone to get them to The Hague, providing there are no roadblocks or obstacles of any kind."

Lyon says that while he disagrees with the arguments of Milosevic's lawyers, he does believe their involvement will slow down the process:

"Let's put it this way: whenever lawyers become involved it slows any process down. I think simply on a variety of procedural issues they will probably find a variety of ways [to stall on Milosevic's transfer] if the government actually decides to lodge a motion to transfer him to The Hague, which they haven't. [Milosevic] would probably be able to delay it for a significant period of time."

A major influencing factor is the change in public opinion. Initially, the Serbian public did not want Milosevic tried for crimes at The Hague. But now, the tide has turned and large numbers of the public are convinced he must go. Lyon says the major turning point was the discovery of mass graves in Belgrade.

"A lot of people were denying -- they wanted to see themselves as victims. And all of a sudden, you now have four mass graves. Yesterday they dug up 30 bodies in one of them. If this was down in Kosovo, if this was in Bosnia or Srebrenica or somewhere in Eastern Slavonia, people could turn their backs. [But] this is Belgrade."

Economics, however, will be the strongest factor behind sending Milosevic to The Hague. The Yugoslav economy is in desperate straits. The government is seeking some $1.2 billion in aid at the upcoming donors conference in Brussels. It wants U.S. support for private investment and cancellations of at least two-thirds of its $12 billion foreign debt. The U.S. and other institutions had threatened to boycott that meeting if the Yugoslav government did not move on war crimes suspects in Serbia.

Miroslav Labus, the government's top economic adviser and deputy prime minister, told reporters recently that there can be no bargaining over extraditing Milosevic and others accused of war crimes. He argued that the nation's economic revival must take precedence.