Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Hague Stalks Belgrade for Witnesses

In the run up to the trial of Slobodan Milosevic, Belgrade appears ready to hand over key witnesses.
By Zeljko Cvijanovic

Serbia is preparing to hand over several key war crimes suspects to The Hague ahead of the trial of Slobodan Milosevic.


According to a senior official within the Belgrade government, two of the indictees face prosecution over war crimes committed in Kosovo in 1999.


The expected handover is likely to delay the opening of Slobodan Milosevic's trial from its slated February 12 starting date so that all defendants can be tried together.


Ex-federal deputy prime minister Nikola Sainovic and former Serbian interior minister Vlajko Stojiljkovic, who both appear on the tribunal's indictment as Milosevic's accomplices, could be extradited in the coming weeks said the IWPR source.


Another possible candidate for extradition, although not listed on the indictment, is the former head of Milosevic's secret service, Rade Markovic, who is currently locked up in Belgrade central prison charged with being behind a number of political assassinations.


Markovic's testimony could prove valuable since he was de facto commander of state security in Kosovo which included the notorious Red Berets, held responsible for some of the worst outrages in Kosovo. It is in his interests to testify as he is currently under tribunal's investigation and could eventually be indicted.


The tribunal is keen to strengthen its position against Milosevic and believes the testimony of these individuals will help tie the former president to crimes.


Milosevic currently stands charged with the murder of 900 Kosovar Albanians, the forced expulsion of some 800,000 Kosovars and other crimes against humanity.


Sainovic is considered a key witness given that he was effectively in charge of Kosovo policy between 1998 and 1999. Communicating directly with police and army units during the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo, he knows who gave what order and under what authority.


He and Stojiljkovic were the main advocates of the former regime's hardline policy in Kosovo and both were key in designing and launching the military campaign against the province. Both have dismissed any suggestion that they would testify against Milosevic.


"Nobody has spoken with me about this matter, nor do I have anything to say against President Milosevic," Stojiljkovic told the Belgrade-based Beta news agency on January 11.


Markovic has made no sign one way or another from his Belgrade prison cell whether he intends to stand or not. However, tribunal investigators have paid him several visits this month. The latest of these took place on January 21, according to his lawyer Dusan Masic.


"They talked about everything that took place during his term in office as state security service chief," said Masic.


The number of visits suggest that the investigators could be trying to broker some kind of deal with Markovic in return for his testimony. Indeed, negotiations with witnesses are not ruled out, the spokesperson for the tribunal's chief prosecutor's office, Florence Hartmann, has stated.


If negotiations with witnesses are considered an option, Hartmann said that the tribunal ruled out any negotiations with the government however badly The Hague wished for cooperation. But senior government sources in Belgrade say this is not the case.


A high-ranking member of Yugoslavia's DOS ruling coalition told IWPR that, so keen is the tribunal to bag their three witnesses, they have resorted to strongarm tactics. The source described how Hague prosecutor Geoffrey Nice secretly met Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic on January 18.


According to the source, Nice threatened Djindjic with sanctions if the suspects weren't extradited.


Following the encounter with Nice, the Serbian premier met in camera with leaders of the ruling coalition party. No decision was made, however, as the most prominent among this group - Yugoslav president Vojislav Kostunica - is adamantly opposed to the handovers.


Kostunica is unwilling to countenance any extradition until legislation has been passed by the federal parliament permitting cooperation with The Hague.


But, as happened with Milosevic, Djindjic could well go ahead without his agreement. In fact, he has made the situation easier for himself having transferred the issue of extradition of subjects from Serbia from a federal to republican level where his authority in unquestioned.


Should the extraditions fail to come about for whatever reason, the prosecution does, according to IWPR sources, have at least six insiders who were once close to Milosevic. Their testimonies will, however, be of lesser importance than the president's two co-indictees.


Speculation is already rife as to the identities of these six potential witnesses. A source close to Milosevic's defence team in Belgrade claims that one is Zoran Lilic, former Yugoslav president between 1993 and 1997.


Others who might testify are the incumbent Serbian president Milan Milutinovic who is also indicted for Kosovo, and the serving Yugoslav army chief of staff Nebojsa Pavkovic. The latter was the commander in charge of Kosovo forces when the crimes were committed.


The degree to which they may be of use to the prosecution is questionable. Lilic, at the time, was rapidly losing his power base. Instead of being in control of events at home, he was involved in secret diplomatic trips in Europe while atrocities were taking place.


Milutinovic himself told the Belgrade daily Blic at the end of last year that, despite his being president, he didn't play a decisive role in affairs at the time.


Even if the tribunal's wishes are granted and the key witnesses find themselves in The Hague, this is no guarantee that they will be willing to cooperate with the prosecution.


Zeljko Cvijanovic works for the Belgrade weekly BlicNews and is a regular IWPR contributor.