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Yugoslavia: Pressure Mounts To Transfer Milosevic To The Hague

Thousands of people gathered in Belgrade's central square last night to protest the possible -- some say likely -- transfer of Slobodan Milosevic to the UN's International War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague. Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica, who has strongly criticized the tribunal in the past, said Milosevic's transfer was the lesser of two evils -- a reference to Yugoslavia's desperate need for U.S. and other international aid.

Prague, 27 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- With Friday's (29 June) donors conference just two days away, pressure has mounted on Yugoslavia to transfer Slobodon Milosevic to the UN's International War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague.

The United States has made it clear that it will not attend the conference unless Belgrade takes definitive action on Milosevic, who has been indicted for war crimes by the tribunal. Yugoslavia is hoping for some $1.2 billion in U.S. and other international aid.

Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica, who in the past has strongly criticized the UN tribunal for being a "political" institution, yesterday singled out U.S. pressure as a major reason for his country's change of heart on transferring Milosevic to The Hague. Kostunica acknowledged that Milosevic's transfer was a political necessity.

"And I think one way or another, all those political and legal dilemmas [surrounding Milosevic] go together or go away together and [lead] to the acceptance of that decree and the necessity of cooperation with The Hague tribunal -- at least as the lesser evil."

Yugoslavia moved closer yesterday to handing over Milosevic, taking the first legal step toward his transfer. Momcilo Grubac, the Yugoslav justice minister, forwarded to the Belgrade District Court the UN tribunal's request for Milosevic's transfer. Grubac is required to do under a decree passed on 23 June by the Yugoslav government.

Today, the Tanjug news agency reported that Yugoslavia's Constitutional Court will rule tomorrow on the legality of the government decree. Milosevic's lawyers are seeking to overturn the decree.

Even so, the United States has not yet indicated whether it will attend the 29 June donors conference. U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said yesterday that no decision had yet been made. "We're encouraged by these positive developments as we consider participating in Friday's donors conference. A recommendation on participation has not yet reached the secretary's [Colin Powell's] desk, but obviously these steps [by Belgrade] will weigh heavily on our decision on attendance."

Daniel Sewer, director of the Balkans Initiative at the private U.S. Institute of Peace, tells our correspondent that Washington was right to keep up pressure to get Milosevic to The Hague.

"[The government decree is] a step in the right direction, but the second step has to be taken for the action to be complete. I think the U.S. has to be very sure that Milosevic is going to The Hague soon if it is to attend the donors conference."

Sewer says the United States has a great deal of leverage on the issue of Milosevic's transfer. But he also says that the late adoption of the government decree casts some doubt about whether it will actually lead to Milosevic's removal to The Hague. Until that becomes certain, Sewer says the U.S. should not attend the conference.

"People are entitled to pursue their legal rights. That's part of the problem -- that they do have those legal rights. This decree is coming so late in the game that it appears uncertain whether it will lead to the second essential step of the actual extradition of Milosevic. So in the absence of that certainty, I think it's hard for the U.S. to go to the donors conference."

Lawyers representing Milosevic -- who was ousted last October and arrested in April on charges of abuse of power -- have vowed to try to prevent the country's new reformist authorities from sending him to the Dutch-based tribunal. The lawyers met yesterday with the head of the Belgrade District Court, which will rule on the transfer request from the UN tribunal. One of them, Branimir Gugl, said Milosevic had 24 hours to choose a defense lawyer, after which he will be questioned by the court. According to Gugl, Milosevic will also have a three-day appeal period if the Belgrade court decides that he should be handed over to The Hague.

Serbian political analyst Vladimir Goati says he doubts Milosevic will be able to stop the decree from taking effect. But he also says that, legally speaking, the decree is unnecessary.

"In my opinion, it is completely unnecessary because Yugoslavia has to cooperate with the international court at The Hague by the constitution and by international agreements of Yugoslavia. All other legal documents -- laws or decrees -- are not necessary."

Goati says that the government decree reflects not only pressure from abroad, but political differences within the governing party, the Democratic Party of Serbia (DOS).

"[The] Democratic Party of Serbia has a mixed feeling in it. It is necessary to cooperate, but it is difficult for them to cooperate with The Hague. The second approach from the start -- from the outset -- is that it's necessary, it's an obligation of Yugoslavia to honestly fully cooperate with the international court."

Despite the mounting pressure, Milosevic is not likely to be transferred to The Hague before Friday's conference in Brussels. The earliest date for an end to his appeal process is 2 July. Some Serbian officials have predicted that Milosevic will be transferred within the next 20 days.