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Yugoslavia: Indicted Former Serbian President Under Pressure To Head To Hague Tribunal

Milan Milutinovic, whose term as president of Serbia expired on 29 December, along with his immunity from prosecution, is under pressure to surrender voluntarily to the UN tribunal in The Hague, which has indicted him for war crimes. Otherwise, authorities in Belgrade will have to take the potentially unpopular move of handing him over. As RFE/RL reports, Belgrade officials say the issue will be resolved but only after the Orthodox New Year holiday in two weeks.

Prague, 2 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Milan Milutinovic was to have left office as the president of Serbia on 5 January, but in a surprise decision, Serbia's Election Commission declared that Milutinovic's term in office would, instead, end at midnight on 29 December, just hours after the decision was announced.

The commission's explanation was that Milutinovic had been elected to a five-year term and that, having assumed the post on 29 December 1997, his time in office had expired.

Thus, since 30 December, Milutinovic has been effectively stripped of his immunity from prosecution. The United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia , or ICTY, indicted Milutinovic in May 1999 for war crimes, along with then-Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and three other senior Belgrade officials.

Milutinovic was the last Milosevic crony to hold a senior office in Serbia and had maintained an extremely low profile since Milosevic's ouster in October 2000. Serb authorities handed Milosevic over to The Hague six months later, over the protests of Milosevic's successor, Vojislav Kostunica.

The Hague indictment says Milutinovic is "criminally responsible for the acts of his subordinates," including members of the security forces, for terrorism, violence, and brutality, as well as deportation, murder, and the persecution of the Kosovo Albanian civilian population and the destruction of their property.

Milutinovic is 60 years old and a lawyer by training. He served as a member of parliament, an ambassador, Yugoslav foreign minister, and for five years as president of Serbia. He is a prominent member of Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia.

Most importantly, as president of Serbia during the Milosevic era, Milutinovic was a member of the Supreme Defense Council and participated in decisions regarding the use of the Yugoslav Army and the Serbian police. He was a key interlocutor in international negotiations as Yugoslav foreign minister, including the 1995 Dayton peace talks that ended the fighting in Bosnia and Croatia. As president of Serbia, he was involved in the Rambouillet talks prior to the NATO air strikes against Yugoslavia in 1999.

The UN tribunal's chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, sent a letter on 19 December to authorities in Belgrade, requesting them to ensure Milutinovic's surrender and transfer. The same day, Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic told the Belgrade daily "Blic" that he expected Milutinovic would have to go to The Hague and explain his role.

Serbian Justice Minister Vladan Batic said that since Milutinovic is now an ordinary citizen, the Belgrade courts should deal with him according to the Yugoslav law on cooperation with The Hague. But he denied the Serbian government has any responsibility in the matter, insisting it is an issue for federal authorities to deal with.

Batic's assistant, Nebojsa Sarkic, said his ministry is waiting for the government to make up its mind. "We are now waiting for the [Serbian] republican government to decide whether it is constitutional and, if so, to proceed positively. If there's a problem, then we'll consult with the prosecutor so that he can go voluntarily or else [wait until] a date is set for his transfer," Sarkic said.

According to the Yugoslav law on cooperation with the tribunal, suspects can either voluntarily surrender or reject the tribunal's subpoena and risk arrest. The tribunal is reported to have rejected a request by Belgrade authorities to allow Milutinovic to be tried locally, possibly in the hope that Milutinovic would testify at Milosevic's ongoing trial.

A close aide to Milutinovic told a Belgrade daily last week that Milutinovic will not go voluntarily to The Hague, nor will he run or hide.

Belgrade investigative judge Milan Dilparic said his court is bound by law to ask the government for approval to have Milutinovic transferred. He said he has made a formal request in writing for the Serbian government to give its view on whether transferring Milutinovic to The Hague could jeopardize the country's sovereignty and security.

Yugoslav President Kostunica said the National Council for Cooperation with the ICTY will review whether transferring Milutinovic might jeopardize national security. Kostunica repeated his accusations that the tribunal is biased: "I think we have a problem with The Hague tribunal, which not only selectively applies justice case by case, nationality by nationality, but also applies different rules to different states that arose out of the former Yugoslavia."

Kostunica suggested that transferring one president, Milosevic, to the tribunal should suffice. But he also acknowledged that as long as Milutinovic and former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and military commander Ratko Mladic remain at large, the international community will view authorities in Belgrade with suspicion. "How many more presidents from this area, from either side of the Drina [the river border between Serbia and Republika Srpska in Bosnia] will have to go to The Hague tribunal so we can prove our compliance [with the tribunal's demands for full cooperation]?" Kostunica said.

Meanwhile, the chairman of the National Council for Cooperation with the Tribunal, Yugoslav Foreign Minister Goran Svilanovic, said a decision on whether Milutinovic's immunity truly has expired will not be made for another week or two. He told the private Beta news agency that no decision will be made before the upcoming Orthodox Christmas on 7 January and the New Year holiday the week after.

Attempts to elect a successor to Milutinovic failed in October and again last month due to voter turnout of under 50 percent. As a result, the speaker of the Serbian parliament, Natasa Micic, has become acting president of Serbia.

Another round of presidential elections is scheduled for 8 February.