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

Regional Report: Mladic Extradition Deadline Extended

Washington said to have postponed Mladic surrender deadline following Serbia’s mafia purge and progress on Hague cooperation.
By Milanka Saponja-Hadzic

The United States has backed down on its demand that Belgrade hand over war crimes suspect Ratko Mladic by a June 15 deadline in order to qualify for American aid, government officials in Belgrade said this week.


They said Washington dropped its insistence because it did not want to interfere with Belgrade’s recent efforts to break up powerful organised crime syndicates, and was generally pleased with its cooperation with the war crimes tribunal.


Following the March assassination of Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic, Belgrade cracked down on criminal gangs that have long operated in Serbia-Montenegro. This paved the way for unprecedented cooperation with The Hague and Washington does not want to do anything that might jeopardise those efforts.


“The Americans understand that delivering Mladic is difficult for the government because many of Milosevic’s generals still hold important places in the army and they do not want to hand Mladic over,” an Belgrade foreign ministry official told IWPR.


The US State Department did not return IWPR’s calls asking for confirmation.


Although Mladic is no longer a popular figure in Serbia, it is believed that his arrest could stir up unrest among hard line nationalists and some high-ranking officers in the army.


However, in a signal that Belgrade is taking steps that would eventually make it easier to arrest the notorious Bosnian Serb general, Serbian officials have begun reforming the armed forces in an effort to bring them under civilian control.


Last month, Serbia-Montenegro’s defence minister Boris Tadic abolished the military intelligence service as well as plans to create a new one, and severed ties with its Republika Srpska counterpart.


Ironically, one of the major efforts Belgrade has undertaken to improve relations with the tribunal is to abolish the military commission for cooperation with The Hague. In spite of its name, the body actually served to undermine the very thing it was supposed to be encouraging.


"The commission was not only assigned to provide information for the Milosevic's defence in The Hague, but also to prevent any handover of war crimes suspects to the tribunal," a government official told IWPR.


And although it is still not ready to go after Mladic, the Belgrade government has been encouraging war crimes suspects to give themselves up. In mid April, Miroslav Radic, who was indicted by the tribunal for his role in the November 1991 mass execution of more than 200 Croats near Vukovar, eastern Croatia, turned himself in. Although it was reported that he did so voluntarily, Natasa Kandic of the Fund for Humanitarian Law, said that police actually arrested Radic.


Now, Belgrade is reportedly putting pressure on Veselin Sljivancanin, a senior Yugoslav army officer, who is also charged in the Vukovar massacre case, to surrender.


Serbian authorities also said they would be willing to extradite other suspects to The Hague. Among those police detained in connection with Djindjic’s assassination are the chief of Milosevic’s notorious secret police, Jovica Stanisic, and former commander of the infamous Red Berets, Frenki Simatovic – men who were believed to be untouchable.


Although neither Stanisic nor Simatovic have been publicly indicted by the tribunal, The Hague confirmed that both are under investigation and Serbian officials said they expected them to be transferred to the tribunal within the next three weeks.


In another move designed to improve cooperation with The Hague, the government plans to make it easier for potential witnesses to testify at the war crimes court. Until recently, remnants of Milosevic’s state apparatus threatened anyone who wished to testify that they would be charged with giving away state secrets. Now witnesses will be immune from such charges. "From now on, no one will be able to hide behind the obligation to keep state secrets," an official from the foreign ministry told IWPR.


Government officials also said that they planned to help raise The Hague’s profile in Serbia-Montenegro. The late prime minister cooperated with the tribunal, but often did so secretly, meeting the tribunal’s chief prosecutor Carla del Ponte at Amsterdam airport in between official visits to European capitals.


"Carla del Ponte was also coming to Belgrade incognito, and we would have to empty the whole government building so that no one could find out that she was in Belgrade discussing the extradition of those persons she was interested in," an government official.


The Serbian public was recently shocked when US Secretary of State Colin Powell referred to a meeting between Del Ponte, Serbian interior minister Dusan Mihajlovic and foreign affairs minister Goran Svilanovic, which they didn’t know had taken place.


All communication between the government and the war crimes tribunal will now be open and public, Serbian authorities said.


Milanka Saponja-Hadzic is an IWPR contributor in Belgrade.