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

Regional Report: Yugoslavia 'Threatening' Tribunal Witnesses

Tribunal chief says Belgrade guilty of intimidating people called to testify at war crimes court.
By Chris Stephen

Hague tribunal chief prosecutor last week accused Yugoslavia of threatening her witnesses with prosecution if they testify to The Hague.


In a hard-hitting report to the UN Security Council, Del Ponte said, "A very important witness in the Milosevic trial has recently been threatened with actual prosecution by the federal authorities, merely for having spoken with our investigators."


She does not name the person, but called on the Security Council to take firm action against Belgrade.


"We are beginning to be able to present what I might call crucial insider witnesses or sensitive sources," she said, in her annual address to the council. "But fresh hurdles are being erected and placed in the way of such people. They are being told that talking to my staff brings with it the risk of prosecution under domestic law protecting official and military secrets."


She also accused Belgrade of failing its duties to arrest war crimes suspects, saying, "The FRY [Former Republic of Yugoslavia] does not show the slightest inclination to comply with any requests relating to the Yugoslav army."


Del Ponte said key indictees, including Serbia’s president Milan Milutinovic, remain free. She added that Yugoslavia is still reluctant to open its archives.


"Make no mistake: I have said it, and I repeat it now. Belgrade’s cooperation is at best selective. It is slow, and it is insufficient," Del Ponte said.


Croatia was also criticised in her speech for refusing to hand over its former army chief, General Janko Bobetko.


"Instead of compliance with the tribunal’s order, the Croatian government has taken upon itself to seek to challenge the warrant and the indictment itself," she said.


Del Ponte went on to say that she had met with similar responses from both states – that they were under political pressure not to surrender men who are popular among nationalists.


"It cannot merely be explained away by saying that the political situation is difficult at the moment," she said.


"The situation is difficult by definition. There will never be a ‘good’ time to execute warrants and arrest notorious public figures."


Del Ponte saved some criticism for the international community itself, citing UN demands, led by America, for Hague investigations to be completed in 2004 while at the same time not strong-arming Balkan nations into handing over suspects and opening archives.


"If the tribunal is to meet the completion strategy targets and the deadlines that are expected of us, these other problems have to be tackled by the international community," she said.


"We cannot be asked to complete our indictments and trials of top leaders and, at the same time, be told to be patient and not to rock the boat. This is an obvious contradiction."


Del Ponte succeeded in persuading the international community, led by the Bush administration, to demand Milosevic be handed over to the tribunal in early 2001, threatening to suspend aid payments otherwise.


Her comments came in a speech that praised the strides made in securing arrests in the Rwanda tribunal, and she said The Hague itself has never worked better. "I believe that we are now at the very peak of our activity at The Hague," she said. "Our jurisprudence is expanding at every turn."


Chris Stephen is IWPR bureau chief in The Hague.