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Milosevic Trial Looms

The Serbian government appears to be preparing the ground for the prosecution of Slobodan Milosevic
By Zeljko Cvijanovic

Former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic could soon be behind bars, but details of what he'll be prosecuted for and where he will stand trial remain sketchy.


The Serbian government is planning his arrest, which is expected before March 31 - the deadline set by the United States for a clear sign of co-operation with the Hague war crimes tribunal.


On his return from Washington last week, Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic said the former president could be charged within a fortnight. "We want all those who committed crimes to be held responsible," he said following talks with US Secretary of State Colin Powell.


But, significantly, Djindjic insisted that, "We want them to answer to our institutions".


The prime minister's comments point to his government's continued search for a compromise with the tribunal. Serbia would agree to the tribunal prosecuting Milosevic so long as the trial takes place in Belgrade and involves Serbian judicial officials.


The first signs of co-operation are already visible. The Serbian government is currently preparing legislation which would allow for the extradition of Yugoslav citizens - something the present constitution forbids.


IWPR sources say the proposed legislation, which is expected to be in place within two months, envisages a joint tribunal-Serbian court in Belgrade, under the jurisdiction of The Hague.


Serbian and Yugoslav leaders met last Sunday to discuss the legislation. In the event of the tribunal rejecting it, they agreed to a proposal by President Vojislav Kostunica to try Milosevic in Belgrade and then extradite him to The Hague.


The tribunal insists that Milosevic only be tried in The Hague. Del Ponte's spokeswoman Florence Hartmann said the court was prepared to wait several weeks to see precisely what the Serbian legislation says.


"But the FRY [Federal Republic of Yugoslavia] should now be arresting those charged, and should send them to The Hague as soon as the law is passed," Hartmann said.


Djindjic said after his meetings in Washington, however, that he believed "we have secured an understanding in the [US] State Department" on a Belgrade trial.


A senior official in the Bush administration said, "We are still committed to bringing him [Milosevic] to The Hague." But he added they did not rule out the possibility of the former Yugoslav president being tried at home before being extradited to face international charges.


Several recent developments have brought about a softening in the Serbian government's initial hostility to the Hague court.


The US March 31 ultimatum was one. Djindjic brought home from Washington the message that US financial aid would not be forthcoming unless Serbia took a significant step towards co-operation with the tribunal.


The government is also increasingly aware that Serbia's judicial system is not capable of effectively bringing charges against Milosevic. For over a month, a group of judicial experts has been working on charges against the former president, but the results are less than promising.


To date, the only charges to be completed relate to electoral fraud during the September 24 ballot, corruption and, bizarrely, illegal building work on the presidential residence in the Belgrade suburb of Dedinje.


Evidence that Milosevic illegally transferred money out of the country is scarce. His opponents' initial claims that he embezzled $10 billion have been downscaled to $4 billion. Even so, Serbian financial and legal experts have insufficient evidence to prove it.


Del Ponte, however, claims the tribunal prosecutors do have the evidence.


"Although it did not have a mandate to investigate Milosevic's dealings in the country, the tribunal investigated the whereabouts of his wealth abroad, " she told the Italian newspaper La Stampa, two weeks ago." We have the evidence and we are ready to make it available."


The chief prosecutor added that Belgrade would be able to retrieve the money on the basis of the tribunal's evidence in the event of Milosevic's extradition to The Hague.


Serbia cannot meet the expectations of the international community by merely prosecuting Milosevic only for carrying out illegal building work on his presidential residence.


Powell told Djindjic that he wouldn't approve of war crimes suspects being tried for other offences. "The attitude was that if there is evidence that they committed war crimes, they should be tried for that and not for some other crimes," said Djindjic.


Djindjic promised to lock up Milosevic within two weeks, but without a proper indictment such a move could quickly degenerate into a farce.


The Serbian judiciary lacks sufficient evidence to prosecute the former president for war crimes. That evidence is also in The Hague.


The tribunal has, however, rejected a request from the Serbian prime minister to "exchange evidence and information" before Milosevic is behind bars at The Hague.


None of Serbia's senior politicians, including Kostunica, are prepared to sacrifice the country's well being to protect Milosevic, so his arrest looks inevitable. The problem is how to go about it. The government has to come up with a formula which will satisfy both domestic public opinion and the international community.


Milosevic was placed under house arrest just before del Ponte visited Belgrade. Serbian Interior Minister Dusan Mihajlovic claims that he is under "constant surveillance".


And the Serbian parliament has also decided to adopt a law which will strip the former president of his privileges and protection.


That did not stop Milosevic venturing out to his Socialist Peoples Party headquarters to chair a meeting on February 3. The following Wednesday he was there again for a memorial service in honour of former federal interior minister Zoran Sokolovic, who had committed suicide the day before.


Most leaders of the ruling Democratic Opposition of Serbia coalition believe Milosevic enjoys such freedom thanks to an agreement struck with Kostunica in October.


In a recent interview for La Stampa, Milosevic reminded Kostunica of the promise he made on the first day of his mandate as Yugoslav president never to extradite his predecessor to The Hague.


"The security of the former president is a matter of honour and morality for the new head of the state," Milosevic said.


Kostunica is strongly opposed to The Hague, arguing a trial of Milosevic there would degenerate into a trial of the Serbian people.


Djindjic, however, is more pragmatic. Provided the Serbian judiciary is in control of the extradition and prosecution process, under the new legislation it would be easier to persuade him to hand Milosevic over.


Several political, police and military figures within the current Serbian and Yugoslav authorities could also face war crimes charges.


Notably, tribunal Deputy Chief Prosecutor Graham Blewitt said recently it was "interested in" Momcilo Perisic - a current vice-president in the Serbian government and a former military ally of Milosevic during the wars in Croatia and Bosnia.


Should the Milosevic trial take place in Belgrade with the Serbian judiciary's involvement, then Djindjic would be much better placed to protect any government allies exposed to tribunal charges.


The Serbian people are, meanwhile, increasingly inclined to see Milosevic as a war criminal. Public opinion researcher Srecko Mihajlovic claims a December poll revealed 41 per cent of respondents wanted the former president prosecuted for war crimes as well as other criminal activities.


Zeljko Cvijanovic is a regular IWPR contributor.