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Zagreb Escapes Sanctions - For Now

Tribunal prosecutor fails to obtain extradition of leading war crimes suspect but defers bringing wrath of UN down on Croatia.
By Drago Hedl

The Zagreb authorities breathed a sigh of relief after The Hague tribunal's chief prosecutor stopped short of calling for damaging international sanctions on Croatia following fruitless talks on the extradition of indicted General Janko Bobetko.


Carla Del Ponte made it clear that she was sorely disappointed with the outcome of her three-hour meeting with Prime Minister Ivica Racan on October 23. But she said that for the time being she would not report Croatia to the UN Security Council for non-compliance because "we have not reached that stage of non-cooperation".


While her frustration was evident in the frosty smiles she delivered to a press conference following the talks, Racan has more than one reason to congratulate himself.


Besides averting sanctions - which Croatia's struggling economy could ill afford - he was happy that Del Ponte brought no new indictments to Zagreb and did not expand the charges against Bobetko, who is accused of command responsibility for atrocities allegedly committed during 1993's Medak Pocket operation.


Del Ponte expressed annoyance that Racan had refused to withdraw two appeals filed with the tribunal, saying it was unacceptable for Croatia to claim that the Bobetko indictment was unfounded.


The prosecutor also complained that the general had not even been served with the indictment, let alone arrested. Because the tribunal judge has confirmed it, she said, Bobetko should therefore be served with it and detained.


On top of this, Del Ponte criticised Racan for "getting involved" in the business of defending the indictee. "The Croat government is not General Bobetko's defence lawyer," she said. "He has his own counsel."


One Croatian excuse has been that the 83-year-old general was in too poor a state of health to go to The Hague. If that were the case, Del Ponte insisted, there was a specific legal procedure that had to be followed.


She was referring to the application of Article 59 of the tribunal's rules, which states that any country unable to enforce an arrest warrant must inform The Hague about its reasons. Under the law, not knowing the whereabouts of a suspect, or his or her ill health constitute grounds for not complying with a court order.


Racan and Del Ponte agreed on only one thing - to await the tribunal's decision on Croatia's two appeals, both of which legal experts think will certainly be rejected. The prime minister has said Zagreb will respect any decisions that are made.


If the appeals fail, Racan will be obliged to pass the indictment to the Zagreb district court, which in turn will have to serve it to Bobetko. It is at this point that Racan is expected to switch tactics and plead that the general is too ill to stand trial, according to a senior left-of-centre member in the governing coalition.


However, Racan's ill-health plea could be weakened by Bobetko's refusal to submit to a hospital examination. Sources close to the prime minister said Racan visited him there last week for two hours of talks but failed to persuade him to have one.


According to sources close to the prime minister, Bobetko had earlier agreed to be admitted to hospital and to receive the indictment, but subsequently changed his mind on both counts.


A day before Del Ponte's arrival in Zagreb, Racan accused "certain individuals" around Bobetko of "scaring him by saying he would be arrested and forcefully taken to The Hague if he showed up at a hospital".


It is believed that the indictee is surrounded by hard line right-wingers led by a group of retired generals who were dismissed by President Stjepan Mesic two years ago for becoming involved in politics.


Rumours in Zagreb have it that that the general's villa is surrounded by well-armed men - believed to be members of an extreme right group called Command for the Defence of Dignity of the Croatian War of Independence - who are ready to fight off any attempt to arrest him.


The weekly paper Nacional - which is known for its good sources in the Croatian secret services - claims that retired General Ivan Basarac has been sleeping in Bobetko's villa for days with a fully loaded automatic rifle beside him.


Even though Racan can take satisfaction from averting sanctions, many problems await him inside the country. The most pressing comes from the extreme right, which sees the Bobetko extradition row as a chance to topple the government and gain power.


Drago Hedl is an IWPR contributor in Osijek