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Macedonia Calls for Extradition of Fugitive Minister

Macedonia hopes case against disgraced ex-minister will restore its battered international reputation.
By Mitko Jovanov

The Macedonian authorities are to demand the extradition of the former interior minister Ljube Boskovski, who fled to Croatia after being charged with the murder of seven migrants.


The justice ministry announced its plans on May 12, nearly two weeks after Boskovski - accused of setting up the killings to look as if the men were Islamic extremists - fled the country.


The murders are thought to have been an attempt to gain favour with Washington, by signalling that Skopje was a willing participant in the US-led "war on terror".


Analysts say that it is essential for Macedonia`s foreign image to resolve the case of the seven men - six Pakistani nationals and one Indian - as it has attracted harsh international criticism.


However, legal experts say they doubt Croatia will immediately extradite Boskovski to Skopje as he is charged with a crime committed outside Croatia's jurisdiction.


They say Boskovski can only stand trial in Croatia if Macedonia's justice ministry transfers the case to the Croatian courts and they decide to proceed with the charges.


The government has accused Boskovski and six others, including former several police officials, with luring a group of economic migrants into the country from Bulgaria and arranging their murder.


The men were promised a transfer to Greece and taken to a flat in Skopje. On March 2, 2002 they were taken to a spot outside the city known as "Rastanski vineyard", told they were close to the Greek border and released to cross over. Members of the special police unit known as the "Lions" then opened fire and killed them.


The police planted weapons and uniforms on the bodies to make them look like Islamic fighters. The interior ministry declared they were terrorists planning attacks on foreign embassies.


The police have already detained Goran Stojkov, former commander of the Lions and Aleksandar Cvetkov, former head of operations at the interior ministry, as well as three others close allies of Boskovski, who was stripped of his parliamentary immunity before he fled the country.


The case has shattered Macedonia's image as the Balkan good boy. Nicolaas Biegman, NATO's ambassador to Skopje, told IWPR, "This could well be the most scandalous case since Macedonia's independence."


"I am very glad this case is being solved because it would have been a matter of gross impunity if it went unpunished. If Macedonia does get to the bottom of this it will show the government is not afraid to tackle a very delicate issue."


Mirjana Najcevska, president of the Helsinki Committee for Macedonia, said the country needed to find the determination to resolve the case, regardless of the political consequences.


"We are talking about the ruthless murder of innocent people, which was ordered by top police officials in order to achieve their political goals," she said.


Boskovski, still a member of Macedonia`s parliament, was in charge of the police during the country's short but bloody ethnic conflict in 2001, when Albanian militants wrested control of a large chunk of territory from government forces.


At the time, Boskovski's special police units were accused of resorting to brutal methods and the Hague war crimes tribunal is investigating his role in the deaths of several civilians in the village of Ljuboten.


After the damage caused by the controversy over Ljuboten, the killing of the migrants has been seen as a Boskovski ploy to regain western sympathy for his hard-line tactics against Albanians.


Analysts say the killings, which took place six months after the ethnic conflict in Macedonia ended, were a bid by the nationalist VMRO-led government to portray Macedonia as a victim of terrorism and expose links between al-Qaeda and the Albanian insurgents.


Few outside the country take the existence of such links seriously.


Ljubomir Frckovski, law professor and a former interior minister, describes the killings as a massive strategic error by top interior ministry officials as they attempted to align Macedonia with US-led fight against terrorism.


"Pakistan and the United States have a strategic partnership," he reminded IWPR. "And Pakistan will use these ties to get a US commitment for the case to be solved. Macedonia will be under strong pressure, therefore, to convict those responsible and compensate the victims' families."


Biljana Vankovska, professor of defence studies at Skopje University, agrees. "Dealing with the case of the murder of these migrants means we can clear up a black stain on Macedonia's reputation," she said.


Vankovska warned that half-measures would satisfy no one. "The entire legal procedure will have to be followed through," she said. "The state will have to accept the consequences, no matter what size or type."


Boskovski fled the country on or around May 1 after police announced he would be charged with the murders. He went missing while parliament was debating whether to remove his immunity.


It remains unclear how he left, as police had already sent a warrant for his arrest to all border crossings. But on May 8 he gave interviews to the Croatian media in which he insisted he had acted on shared intelligence that showed the group had planned attacks on the US embassy.


"I left Macedonia because a court trial against me is being staged for political reasons," he said. "I expect my innocence will be proved after which I will return to Macedonia."


His lawyer in Croatia and Croatian justice ministry officials told the Macedonian media that Boskovski could not be extradited to Macedonia - and would only face trial in Croatia if Macedonia handed the case against him to the Croatian courts.


However, diplomats predict Croatia may not be the safe haven for Boskovski that his lawyer appears to believe, owing to his suspected involvement in the Ljuboten case.


"If the Hague tribunal decides to indict Boskovski for Ljuboten, I do not think that Croatia will hesitate to surrender him," one western diplomat assured IWPR.


In the meantime, Macedonian hopes that its attempt to come clean over the case of the seven murdered men will restore its reputation abroad.


"In the long run Macedonia can only benefit," said Denko Maleski, a former foreign minister and international law professor, referring to the opening of the case. "It will send a clear message that Macedonia will never allow anything like this to happen again."


Mitko Jovanov is a journalist with the Skopje daily Dnevnik.


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