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Problems Outweigh Progress of U.N. Tribunal

War crimes: Lack of international cooperation, slow pace of arrests bring panel to turning point.

May 04, 1997|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

THE HAGUE — Prosecutors pursuing war criminals from the former Yugoslav federation celebrated a rare victory this past week--though not a guilty verdict or even a favorable ruling.

The simple appearance of an indicted suspect before the international court here was sufficient cause for cheer in a tortuous search for justice that has yielded few results.

Zlatko Aleksovski, a pudgy former warden at a prison camp in Bosnia-Herzegovina, stood grim-faced in a blue suit and polka-dotted tie at his arraignment on charges of murdering and enslaving Muslims. It was only the second time that a former Yugoslav republic--in this case, Croatia--turned over an accused war criminal since the tribunal began its work three years ago.

The lack of arrests is but one of the problems undermining the court, which is attempting to punish those responsible for the worst atrocities in Europe since World War II and serve as model for a permanent war-crimes court.

In the tribunal's first trial, a key witness was caught lying. A lead prosecutor has quit in frustration. Governments thumb their noses at subpoenas. Suspects continue to work in positions of power, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, with forces in Bosnia, refuses to round them up.

Louise Arbour, a Canadian jurist who became the court's chief prosecutor six months ago, acknowledged the difficulties and the frustrating lack of cooperation from all sides. But she argued that the work of the United Nations' International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, as it is formally known, is at a turning point.

"The parties [of the former Yugoslav federation] are not only not doing enough, they are doing nothing," Arbour, 50, said in an interview. "They are not cooperating to any level of satisfaction. And the international community, in its many manifestations, is way too tolerant of this kind of defiance."

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Without arrests, new trials are unlikely; without trials, the work of the tribunal could be relegated to a historical filing cabinet. "I cannot see a long-term solid future [for the tribunal] without a functioning courtroom," Arbour said. "The work should be seen. This is not a historical commission simply making an inquiry."

When a U.S.-brokered accord signed in Dayton, Ohio, ended the war in Bosnia in 1995, all parties agreed to cooperate with the tribunal, which was given the task of seeking criminal prosecutions against those who committed crimes against humanity.

But instead of cooperation, the signatories--Serbs, Croats and Muslims--have for the most part ignored the court.

Of 74 people indicted, only eight are in The Hague's custody. The most prominent of those indicted but not detained, such as Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, live openly, comfortably and lucratively. Several work for their local police departments. Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb army commander who has been indicted twice on genocide charges, was spotted last month at a soccer match in Belgrade, having crossed international borders to get there.

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Aleksovski, arraigned at The Hague on Tuesday, was turned over to the tribunal by Croatia only after enormous U.S. pressure and the threat of blocked international loans. Bosnia's Muslim-led government last year surrendered two suspects who are on trial now with two other men extradited from Germany and Austria. They are charged with the murder and rape of Bosnian Serb captives.

Two Bosnian Croats turned themselves in: Drazen Erdemovic confessed to his role in massacres at the Muslim enclave of Srebrenica and was sentenced to 10 years in prison, while former military commander Tihofil Blaskic is expected to go on trial this summer.

The trial of Dusko Tadic, a Bosnian Serb prison guard arrested by German authorities, ends with a verdict expected on Wednesday here in the Netherlands.

Yugoslavia detained three Serbs wanted in a 1991 massacre of more than 200 hospital patients in Croatia but refuses to extradite them.

Despite the small number of trials in progress, tribunal officials said they have continued to work steadily and fruitfully on investigations, building cases that are ripe for trial and compiling a record of the atrocities committed during 4 1/2 years of war in the Balkans. With new access to military and government documents, an increasingly sharp picture of the chain of command behind many atrocities is coming into focus, they said.

But Bosnians looking for justice are discouraged by the slow pace and have attacked the court for its failure to make progress. And there are concerns within the tribunal that the perceived inertia could cause U.N. leadership to slash the court's budget at a time when Arbour and others are arguing that they need more people and money, not less.

"It would be crazy to close this place prematurely," said Terree Bowers, a Los Angeles lawyer who is legal coordinator of the tribunal's investigations section.

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