Serbia: Extradition Drama

Will a former minister's dramatic attempt to kill himself shake the government's resolve to surrender more war crimes suspects to The Hague tribunal?

Serbia: Extradition Drama

Will a former minister's dramatic attempt to kill himself shake the government's resolve to surrender more war crimes suspects to The Hague tribunal?

The struggle in Serbia over the adoption of a law on cooperation with the tribunal entered a dramatic phase on Thursday night after one of the key suspects attempted suicide on the steps of the Yugoslav parliament, minutes after deputies had voted through the controversial legislation.

Former interior minister, Vlajko Stojiljkovic, 64, shot himself in the head, carrying out a recent threat to take his life rather than face the international war crimes tribunal. On Friday, he was fighting for his life in a Belgrade hospital.

In a note left behind, he wrote, "Patriotic citizens of this country will know how to avenge me." He praised his former boss, Slobodan Milosevic, now on trial in The Hague, and accused Serbia's prime minister Zoran Djindjic and Yugoslav president Vojislav Kostunica, of acting as "puppets".

Stojilkovic is charged with presiding over a reign of police terror in Kosovo in 1999, which included the deportation of around 800,000 ethnic Albanians and culminated in western military intervention, which terminated Serbian control over the province.

The Yugoslav assembly passed the law on cooperation with The Hague tribunal on Wednesday, defusing - at least for the moment - a crisis in relations with the US, which blocked a 115 million US dollar aid package to Yugoslavia until Belgrade fell into line with the court.

After two unsuccessful attempts to pass the law last June and in March this year, deputies from Serbia's governing coalition, the Democratic Opposition of Serbia and its Montenegrin partners, the Socialist People's Party, pushed it through the assembly.

It marked a compromise between Serbia's two political arch-rivals, Djindjic and Yugoslav president Vojislav Kostunica. The latter previously hindered adoption of the law. Djindjic outwardly supported cooperation but recently refused to extradite suspects on his own authority and expose himself to the charge of "treason" ahead of elections in Yugoslavia which are expected soon.

As the struggle between the two leaders worsened, the March 31 deadline set by the US for the suspects' extradition expired and Washington froze its aid package.

Under the new procedure for extradition, the federal justice minister will forward indictments against Serbian and Montenegrin suspects to courts in Belgrade and Podgorica. They will then issue arrest warrants to the police. The accused will be entitled to appeal to the supreme court, which will have the final say on extradition.

The entire procedure should not take more than two weeks, which is when the first transfers from Belgrade to The Hague are expected. The tribunal's chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte is due in Belgrade at the end of the month.

Defending the new legislation, Djindjic on Tuesday said war crimes suspects would have finished up in The Hague "with or without the law". He added, "The important thing was for our political public and factors to back it".

Although Belgrade has made a major step towards normalising relations with the international community and the US, the path is not entirely free of thorns. The law applies only to the 16 Yugoslav citizens and Bosnian Serbs who have sought shelter in Serbia and Montenegro and already been indicted.

It does not apply to Yugoslav citizens who may be indicted in the future, a loophole that the tribunal spokeswoman Florence Hartmann described as "unacceptable". "If new indictments show up, we will ask Yugoslavia to honour that," she said.

Although Serbia's justice minister Vladan Batic said on Tuesday the ruling coalition's Montenegrin partners had insisted on these limits to the law, the real reason for the loophole appears to be Djindjic and Kostunica's secret agreement with the US envoy on war crimes, Pierre Richard Prosper. Prosper held separate talks with the two men last Friday.

A senior member of the DOS coalition said Washington's priority was the speedy extradition of existing suspects. DOS sources said that while Djindjic pledged to ensure the extradition of all existing indictees, Prosper indicated the US would urge The Hague to guarantee that future indictments are handled by the Yugoslav courts.

One other disputed issue concerns the fact that Hague investigators will not receive the automatic access to police and military archives they wanted. Instead, article 11 of the law leaves the matter to the discretion of the federal and republican governments.

The tribunal had been counting on access to the files to uncover fresh evidence against existing suspects and perhaps issue new indictments.

The law has, however, shaken the military establishment, which until now has acted as a focus of opposition to the tribunal. Kostunica was seen as the army's resolute protector, an image that has taken a knock since he agreed to the law.

Some wanted suspects may voluntarily surrender over the next few days, now they can no longer count on Kostunica's strong opposition to extradition. Apart from Stojiljkovic, two other senior Milosevic aides, Nikola Sainovic, a former Yugoslav deputy prime minister, and Dragoljub Ojdanic, the ex federal army chief of staff, were expected to be extradited within days.

While the surrender of these three will satisfy the US, Del Ponte is expected to reiterate demands for action on three former Yugoslav army officers wanted for the mass killing of 260 Croats near Vukovar in 1991 during her visit to Belgrade. These are General Mile Mrksic, Colonel Veselin Sljivancanin and Captain Miroslav Radic.

There is no indication that Stojilkovic's dramatic suicide bid will ignite serious public protests against the tribunal, making further surrender of suspects too political risky for the government to contemplate. But the act has left a bitter taste in the mouths of many Serbs, who already consider the tribunal anti-Serbian. The sight of a large crowd shouting "murderers" outside the federal parliament, following the shooting, was not encouraging.

Zeljko Cvijanovic is editor-in-chief of the Belgrade weekly Blic News.

Serbia, Kosovo
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