ANALYSIS: The Milosevic Case

Slobodan Milosevic may be behind bars, but he continues to threaten Balkan stability

ANALYSIS: The Milosevic Case

Slobodan Milosevic may be behind bars, but he continues to threaten Balkan stability

Saturday, 28 April, 2001

A month on from his arrest in Belgrade, the former president of Yugoslavia, Slobodan Milosevic, seems no closer to appearing before judges at The Hague. Indeed, at first sight, he may be a step further away.

Tribunal President Claude Jorda and Chief Prosecutor Carla Del Ponte reminded the Yugoslav and Serbian authorities on April 4 of their "binding absolute obligation" to transfer the accused to the tribunal's custody "with all due diligence". Belgrade ignored this and a further a demand from the tribunal's registrar, Hans Holthius, delivered in person a week later.

A primary objective of Holthius's trip to Belgrade was to ensure the tribunal indictment and arrest warrant were served on Milosevic. Despite assurances from Yugoslav justice minister Momcilo Grubac that this would be done, tribunal officials say they still do not know if Milosevic has received the documents. In fact, Milosevic's lawyer Toma Fila said his client was waiting to be "officially informed" about "what Carla Del Ponte wants".

Last week, Del Ponte wrote to Grubac requesting written confirmation as to whether the indictment and warrant had been served. According to media reports, Grubac, who enjoys a reputation as a "friend of the tribunal", dismissed her letter as a "marketing strategy" designed to "raise the profile of the court in the international media".

Del Ponte's advisor Jean Jacques Joris countered that the "marketing strategy" was in fact an "important and necessary procedural and legal step". Tribunal prosecutors, Joris said, "must have in black and white that Yugoslavia fulfilled its obligation, in order to decide on the basis of that what its next steps will be."

He refused to say what these steps might be, but added that Del Ponte "knows what she will do if she receives an official answer from Belgrade that the indictment and the arrest warrant were not served on Milosevic".

It appears the chief prosecutor wants that information before making her upcoming visits to Paris and Washington.

Belgrade, meanwhile, seems unconcerned over how Del Ponte will assess their level of cooperation with the tribunal during those visits.

The Yugoslav and Serbian governments appear confident they have done enough to secure the United State's support at the international donor conference for Yugoslavia to be held in Brussels at the end of May. European Union support is already in the bag. Officials from the European Commission and member-states have said they "expect" Belgrade to cooperate with the tribunal and would not make economic aid and investment conditional on it.

Belgrade calculates the US will be content with steps taken so far. A draft law of cooperation with the tribunal has been prepared, which envisages clearing the way for the extradition of Yugoslav citizens to the tribunal. Whether the law passes successfully through the Yugoslav parliament is another matter.

A tribunal prosecutors' office has also been opened in Belgrade and investigators have begun the work of collecting evidence and interviewing potential witnesses. The release of 143 Kosovo Albanian prisoners last week also went some of the way to meeting another key US condition for participation in the donor conference.

Last but not least, the Yugoslav military prosecutor has ordered investigations against 183 "soldiers, non-commissioned officers and officers . . . for crimes resulting in deaths and injuries of civilians as well as violations of their basic human rights during combat activities in the province of Kosovo in 1998 and 1999".

Given these gestures, Belgrade estimates ignoring the demands of the tribunal in relation to Milosevic amounts to a minor issue, which is unlikely to ruin the West's honeymoon with the new authorities.

After all, even the tribunal does not underestimate the steps taken so far. Prosecutors, judges and the registry have all examined the draft law on cooperation and returned their comments and suggestion to Belgrade last week.

Joris, the prosecutor's advisor, assessed the announced investigation into Yugoslav military personnel as a "very important development" because the Serbian judiciary, like judiciaries in other countries involved in the conflicts, "have an obligation to criminally prosecute those who are guilty of crimes during the armed conflicts in former Yugoslavia".

Joris added the move was "interesting also because the tribunal accused Milosevic of crimes against humanity as supreme commander of the forces in the conflict in Kosovo in 1998 and 1999. The fact that those 183 soldiers and officers were also suspected of crimes committed during the Kosovo conflict represents a kind of admission and confirmation of his responsibility for the crimes of which he was accused in The Hague."

He said the tribunal prosecution "hopes, expects and is prepared to cooperate with the Yugoslav authorities [in their Kosovo investigation], to provide the access to information that they might need, just as it expects of them to hand over information that might be useful for the investigations conducted on this in the Hague."

That Milosevic is a step further away from The Hague now than on April 1 is down not so much to Belgrade's refusal to view his transfer as a "priority", but to the international community's apparent acceptance of the argument that they have "more important problems" to address.

Del Ponte has the means to put this interpretation to the test. New indictments for crimes committed during the conflicts in Croatia and Bosnia are looming against Milosevic. These indictments would shift the former Yugoslav leader's responsibility beyond Serbia.

A tougher challenge, however, could come with the indictment of Croatian generals for crimes against Serb civilians during and after Operation Storm in 1995.

The tribunal survived the non-cooperation of Milosevic's Serbia - no one expected his Belgrade to do otherwise.

Survival looks less easy if the new, democratic Serbia is allowed to ignore the obligations binding all states under the tribunal's jurisdiction.

The key test could be impending indictments against Croatian commanders. If Milosevic is still in a Belgrade prison when indictments against Croatian officers are issued, then it is inconceivable Croatia would extradite the accused to the tribunal. Were Zagreb to do so, the government would face fierce internal opposition, much more serious than the recent protests over the arrest of General Norac.

Ousted from office and now behind bars, Milosevic continues to destabilise the Balkans.

Mirko Klarin is IWPR's senior editor in The Hague

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