Del Ponte Furious Over Mladic

Chief prosecutor slates Belgrade for the non-delivery of the Hague tribunal’s top fugitive.

Del Ponte Furious Over Mladic

Chief prosecutor slates Belgrade for the non-delivery of the Hague tribunal’s top fugitive.

The Hague tribunal’s chief prosecutor has lashed out over Belgrade’s behaviour in relation to top war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic in recent months, describing it as “unprofessional”, “unacceptable” and “a scandal”.

Hopes had been raised that Mladic, the former head of the Bosnian Serb army who is thought to be hiding in Serbia, might be delivered to The Hague by the end of April.

Carla Del Ponte told a press conference this week that Serbian prime minister Vojislav Kostunica “promised” at the end of March that Mladic would be arrested shortly – but she said this information was “wrong or largely misrepresented”.

“I was misled,” said Del Ponte, explaining that it now seemed that Belgrade had in fact been focusing its efforts on persuading Mladic to give himself up voluntarily.

Within minutes, her interpretation was confirmed by the Serbian prime minister himself, who made a statement explaining that his government, “has done absolutely everything within its power to have Ratko Mladic finally depart for The Hague”.

“It would be best for everyone,” said Kostunica, “that Ratko Mladic too follows the example of [other Serb officers] and departs for The Hague.”

Over the past year, this “voluntary surrender” approach has led to a number of high-ranking Serb police and military officers giving themselves up to the tribunal.

Sources close to the government in Belgrade told IWPR that Kostunica’s statement shows that the authorities still consider arresting Mladic to be an unacceptable route, despite recognising that voluntary surrender is “the least probable option”.

Del Ponte slammed Belgrade’s approach as “completely unrealistic and simply wrong”. She said she was unconvinced that the authorities had a “focused and coordinated plan”.

Public support in Serbia for the Yugoslav tribunal has plummeted since the sudden death of former president Slobodan Milosevic in The Hague in March. Conspiracy theories and speculation followed, contributing to the downward spiral of trust.

Observers in Belgrade note that Kostunica continues to flirt with nationalist-oriented voters and suggest that he is insisting that Mladic surrender by himself, rather than having him arrested, as part of a bid to win the widest possible public support.

“The government would be much happier if Mladic voluntarily surrendered, or even committed suicide, instead of it having to organise an operation and arrest him,” said one source close to the government.

As a result of the failure to deliver Mladic, the European Union went ahead with its threat to suspend negotiations on an association agreement with Serbia – the first step towards eventual accession to the bloc.

Kostunica noted that the EU’s decision “inflicts huge damage on the government of Serbia and on our country”.

Serbian deputy prime minister Miroljub Labus, who was in charge of negotiating with the EU, promptly resigned.

Labus’s parting shot was to claim that Serbian state security had “searched for [Mladic] everywhere, except for the place where he was”.

This remark points up the huge problems the government has faced in gaining control over the civilian and military security agencies. These institutions, which served the regime of Slobodan Milosevic loyally in the Nineties, have only been partly reformed, according to observers in Belgrade. Some elements within them continue to support war crimes suspects.

The close ties that parts of the state security agencies and the military retain with fugitives like Mladic are confirmed by a list of members of the former general’s support network who have been arrested in recent months. Many are recently-retired members of the army of Serbia and Montenegro.

Kostunica continued to insist that a concerted effort is being made to track down Mladic, claiming that “the whole network of helpers has been discovered” and that the general “is now hiding on his own”.

But Del Ponte told journalists that Belgrade has known Mladic’s location on a number of occasions – in January and even as recently as two weeks ago. “Apparently Mladic is moving very quickly from one apartment to another in Belgrade or nearby,” she said.

She pointed out that not only did Mladic appear to know what the authorities were doing, but so did the Belgrade press – proof, in her view, that “the investigators are doing their job unprofessionally”.

How far Serbia’s reputation in the eyes of the international community has been damaged by its failure to produce Mladic and by its apparent “double face”, as the prosecutor put it, remains to be seen.

Belgrade is in the middle of a series of interconnected crises relating to regional and foreign policy. Apart from relations with the tribunal and the EU, there is also the imminent referendum in Montenegro on independence from the current state union with Serbia, and ongoing negotiations on the future status of Kosovo. In all three areas, Serbia is looking weak and isolated.

“A success in the negotiation process with the EU is the indispensable trump card that the ruling coalition is planning to play in the forthcoming elections,” the source close to the Serbian government told IWPR, pointing out that the EU is more popular in Serbia than many local institutions and politicians.

That creates additional pressure on the Kostunica government to take some practical steps towards handing over Mladic.

“Never has it happened in our history that the entire state and people have suffered because of one officer,” said Kostunica.

Janet Anderson is the director of IWPR’s International Justice Programme in The Hague. Daniel Sunter is an IWPR contributor based in Belgrade.
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