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The assassination of Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic threatens to paralyse the faltering war crimes extradition process.
Djindjic had been The Hague’s best hope of arresting war crimes suspects living in Serbia.
Now his death has thrown the question wide open.
In fact, some think Djindjic may have been killed by men who feared they were about to be arrested on war crimes charges.
Chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte told an Italian newspaper this week that Djindjic once confessed to her once that his push to reform the security forces could end in his own death.
But she said that there must no let-up in the pressure on Serbian leaders – and those of the Bosnian Serbs and Croatians – to hand over crimes suspects.
At meetings with European Union officials Chris Patten and Javier Solana on March 18, she said the pressure must be kept up – if necessary by threatening to withdraw aid.
Her threat was made to Croatia too – she wants aid linked to the handover of indicted generals Janko Bobetko and Ante Gotovina.
And Brussels also appears to be taking a tough line. ”We are going to continue pressure on all authorities including Croatia and Serbia and Montenegro,” said Solana, the EU’s foreign and security policy representative.
Attention is likely to focus on two key members of the Milosevic era – former secret police chief Jovica Stanisic and his onetime deputy Franko Simatovic.
Both men have been arrested in the Serbian police crackdown on organised crime following Djindjic’s death, and both are rumoured to be the subject of sealed – secret – Hague indictments.
If this is so, pressure will become intense on Belgrade to hand both men over.
Djindjic’s death came as he was beginning to show real commitment to the transfer of suspects to The Hague.
In January, former Serbian president Milan Milutinovic, indicted along with Milosevic, went to The Hague. In February, Radical Party boss Vojislav Seselji followed. Djindjic was poised to extradite two former army officers later this month.
Hague prosecutors had been hoping Djindjic would hand them the greatest prize of them all – Ratko Mladic.
Of the handful of war crimes indictees believed to be in Serbia, former Bosnian Serb general is the key.
The weekend before his death, Djindjic got the army to issue a statement distancing itself from Mladic.
The implication was clear – if the police were sent to seize him, the army would not stand in their way.
All this was done for a reason: Djindjic was under huge pressure from the West, and in particular from the United States.
In January, US ambassador for war crimes Richard Pierre-Prosper said Mladic would have to be extradited to ensure continued congressional aid payments.
This deadline has been extended until June 15, but Del Ponte seems certain to insist that no further extension be granted.
But if Djindjic was killed because he was going after war crimes suspects, this poses huge problems for his successor if he tries to do the same thing.
This, in turn, is a gigantic problem for the international community, which wants to see war crimes suspects in The Hague, but equally does not want to provoke a new crisis in Serbia.
This week the president of Serbia’s parliament security committee, Dragan Sutanovic, said Mladic was no longer in the republic – so Belgrade cannot be expected to arrest him.
This raises the possibility that Mladic, like Karadzic, is now scuttling between Serbia, Montenegro and the Bosnian Serb republic in an effort to evade capture.
However, sooner or later the nettle will need to be grasped again, and the West must decide whether to put the same pressure on Djindjic’s successor.
Chris Stephen is IWPR’s bureau chief in The Hague.
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