ANALYSIS: Serbia and Croatia in Extradition Quandary

The authorities in Belgrade and Zagreb are contemplating a grim choice over fate of Hague indictees.

ANALYSIS: Serbia and Croatia in Extradition Quandary

The authorities in Belgrade and Zagreb are contemplating a grim choice over fate of Hague indictees.

Tuesday, 22 February, 2005

Former Serbian president Milan Milutinovic arrived in The Hague this week but prosecutors were not popping the champagne corks – instead they’re demanding Belgrade and Zagreb hand over a cluster of high-profile suspects still on the run.


Milutinovic is the fifth former Serb president to arrive at The Hague, joining Biljana Plavsic, Momcilo Krajsnik, Milan Martic and of course Slobodan Milosevic.


And his arrival means that all Milosevic accomplices charged in the Kosovo indictment are accounted for – two others are also in detention, and the fourth is dead.


But from the prosecution point of view, the real fight has only just begun: key suspects remain at large and a bitter political battle has begun to force Belgrade and Zagreb to hand them over.


Even as the Yugoslav government transport plane arrived in an overcast rainy Hague on Monday afternoon, the opening shots were being felt across the Balkans.


These came on Sunday, when the United States announced that aid payments to both Croatia and Serbia may be slashed unless Hague suspects are handed over.


To ram home the point, Washington announced that its chief war crimes envoy, Pierre-Richard Prosper, will this week tour the region, to knock heads together.


Prosper is a skilled operator, making his name as the first lawyer ever to prosecute a genocide case – in Rwanda – and his message to Belgrade and Zagreb will be simple: hand over the suspects you are protecting, or the US Congress will cut your aid on March 31, when it meets for its annual assessment of its financial assistance programme.


The amount of money is not great – perhaps 40 million US dollars for the Serbs – but other parties, including the UN and European Union, are likely to follow the American lead.


Serbia holds the most indictees: as detailed by IWPR expert Mirko Klarin – see accompanying article – they include men wanted for some of the most appalling crimes in the Bosnian war.


Two suspects are accused of raping and enslaving Muslim girls in Foca. Another two are blamed for herding 130 Muslim civilians into a building in Visegrad and setting it alight.


And then there is The Hague’s Most Wanted – Ratko Mladic, the army chief blamed for the worst atrocity of the war, the murder of 7,000 unarmed Muslims at Srebrenica in 1995.


Croatia, meanwhile, is hanging onto its former army commander, General Janko Bobetko, and General Ante Gotovina, both blamed for the murder of Serb civilians during Croatian army offensives.


There is no love for these men within the newly established democratic governments of Croatia and Serbia, but both face an identical problem: these indictees include key members of the army top brass, who have the support not just of large sections of the military, but also much of the former nationalist ruling elite of each country.


Both governments argue that trying to arrest these men may be extremely dangerous and could provoke a violent nationalist backlash.


In Serbia, Prime Minister Zoran Djinjic knows that indictees such as Mladic have phalanxes of army volunteers acting as body-guards, conjuring up the prospect of police and army having to fight it out in the streets to make an arrest.


This could be quickly exploited by extremist politicians – Mladic is considered a hero amongst Serbian nationalists - to destabilise the authorities.


But the international community is running out of patience, especially with Serbia.


Last year, Belgrade persuaded Congress to give it more time in order to pass a law on extradition of war crimes suspects. That legislation has now been passed, and many will feel Belgrade is all out of excuses.


Hague chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte appears to feel there is no more room for tolerance.


For the past year, Belgrade and Zagreb have been given time to make the arrests. Late last year, both Del Ponte and Hague president Judge Claude Jorda told the UN Security Council that time is now up. The March 31 vote provides a good deadline.


And so the battle lines are drawn for a two-month-long roller coaster ride, as Belgrade and Zagreb contemplate the grim choice of who to antagonise – their own nationalists or international opinion.


Almost unnoticed in this drama is an intriguing sub-plot – the hunt for the sixth former Serb president – Dr Radovan Karadzic.


He is presumed to be still dodging around in the hills and forests of south-eastern Bosnia and northern Montenegro.


Limited moves are being made to snare him – the international authorities in Bosnia are to begin targeting those thought to be giving him aid.


But the truth is that “The Doctor” is not the main priority. For Hague prosecutors, the number one battle that needs to be fought, and won, is with states that harbour war crimes suspects. Then the net can be drawn tighter around Karadzic.


So The Hague must win its trial-of-strength with Belgrade and Zagreb. And the signs are that it will not be easy.


Chris Stephen is IWPR Bureau Chief in The Hague.


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