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Prosecutors Appear 'Up-Beat' About Belgrade Visit

Tribunal prosecutors deny Carla Del Ponte returned from Yugoslavia 'empty-handed'

The Hague tribunal prosecutors' office, OTP, cast Chief Prosecutor Carla Del Ponte's recent trip to Belgrade in an optimistic light last week, in contrast to the gloomy reports in the Western media.

Although on the eve of Del Ponte's trip the OTP stressed dialogue with Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica was of paramount importance, the official interpretation of the visit simply ignored the Yugoslav leader in its final analysis.

Rather the OTP focused on the more positive signs of cooperation coming from Yugoslav government ministers directly involved in dealings with The Hague.

Deputy Prosecutor Graham Blewitt said of Del Ponte's trip, "I don't think we've come back empty handed at all. I think there are grounds to be very optimistic that full cooperation is going to be forthcoming in the relatively near future."

Blewitt added the chief prosecutor was "very pleased to hear that Yugoslavia accepts it has legal obligations as a member of the UN and that it does include the surrender of all the indictees to the tribunal."

Blewitt said one good thing which had come out of the visit, was the beginning of dialogue "at working level." He emphasised the OTP office in Belgrade would soon reopen and tribunal investigators would gain access to Serb witnesses and victims.

"I think this is going to be a very positive consequence of the prosecutor's visit," Blewitt said " The prosecutor does have a team investigating the activities of the KLA [Kosovo Liberation Army].

"Up until now we had no access to Serb victims and witnesses and in addition the prosecutor has asked the [United Nations] SC [Security Council] to extend the tribunal's mandate to investigate crimes that have occurred in Kosovo since K-For deployed there in June 1999."

The deputy prosecutor went on to say the OTP welcomed the Yugoslav justice minister's move to introduce a law before the federal parliament removing any legal obstacles to the surrender of indictees.

Blewitt said officials in Belgrade had made it clear they would prefer to wait until public opinion had come around to the idea before extraditing indictees like former president Slobodan Milosevic. "Don't think the prosecutor can wait for public opinion to reach that point," he said.

The deputy prosecutor was optimistic, however, that other 'low level' indictees currently in Serbia would be surrendered in the coming months. "If and when that happens I think that would be the most significant event and of course it would pave the way for more significant surrenders to take place, " he said.

Blewitt reiterated that the tribunal could not tolerate Serbia being treated differently from other countries in the former Yugoslavia. "I think equal treatment has to be applied to all the countries including Serbia, " he said. " It is important that there be no double standards."

The new authorities seek to embrace democracy and the rule of law, and to ensure Serbia's reintegration into the international community as soon as possible. Sanctions have been lifted and foreign aid is tantalisingly close at hand.

Hence the tribunal expects Serbia to cooperate fully, in the same way as her neighbours.

Should Milosevic and others accused of genocide and crimes against humanity be permitted to stand trial 'at home' - as Kostunica has been demanding - then Croatia too could demand the same for the Croatian army generals likely to be indicted on similar charges for atrocities committed during and after Operation Storm against the Croatian Serb enclave in Krajina.

Sarajevo too would have a hard time agreeing to the extradition of senior Bosnia-Herzegovinian army officials suspected of crimes against Croats and Serbs. Likewise, KLA leaders would resist Hague trials should they be charged with crimes against Kosovo Serbs.

Serbia may well not object to trials in Zagreb, Sarajevo and Pristina. But in such circumstances the need for The Hague would cease and it could shut its doors.

This is a possibility of course, although an unlikely one at the moment. The tribunal and the international community do not consider the courts' work done.

The OTP is still conducting 36 investigations against some 150 suspects, mainly senior military and political figures from Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo. These investigations are expected to end by 2004.

The UN Security Council and General Assembly are almost finished appointing 14 new permanent judges to the tribunal with a mandate until November 2005.

Meanwhile, preparations are underway for the election of a further 27 'complementary' (at litem) judges. From September, the tribunal will be able to hear six separate trials every day. Should all those charged be arrested and sent to the tribunal in good time, its work should end by 2010 at the latest.

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