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Prosecutor Is Fired Up for Trial of Milosevic


THE HAGUE — On the eve of the most dramatic case of her career, Chief Prosecutor Carla Del Ponte of the international war crimes tribunal glowed Monday with the incandescent pride of one who can finally make good on a sacred promise.

It was nine months ago that Del Ponte vowed to the women of the Bosnian town of Srebrenica that she would bring former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to justice for the killings of their menfolk--the worst single atrocity committed in Europe since the Holocaust.

"They asked for that, and I promised I would do my best. And with the arrest of Milosevic, this is the first step," the 54-year-old Swiss jurist told The Times in an interview in her office above the courtroom where Milosevic is scheduled to be arraigned today.

Milosevic faces charges of crimes against humanity for killings and expulsions of ethnic Albanians in the Yugoslav region of Kosovo before and during the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's 1999 bombardment of Yugoslavia. There is no mention in the indictment of the 1995 Bosnian Serb assault on civilians in Srebrenica, a U.N. "safe haven" in eastern Bosnia-Herzegovina. More than 7,000 Muslim men and boys were killed or disappeared and are presumed dead.

But Del Ponte has made a career of going after the architects of crime and corruption, and she insists that she will eventually expand her case against Milosevic to cover war crimes in Bosnia and Croatia, including genocide.

Del Ponte is undeterred by threats to her safety--she narrowly escaped an assassination attempt at the home of a fellow prosecutor of the Mafia in 1989. Her diminutive stature and elfin demeanor mask a fierce determination to settle the moral score in the Balkans.

"Justice is a great support in the processes of reconciliation and peace, which is why we insist on the arrest of all accused," she said. "If someone who has caused suffering is still running around free, the families and friends of the victims cannot get over their desire for vengeance."

Bringing Milosevic to account after four wars were waged under his leadership is the driving force of her existence now, she said.

"When I met with the mothers of Srebrenica, that was probably the most emotional moment I have had," said the prosecutor, who is known for steely face-offs with drug runners, money launderers and organized crime bosses. "You could touch with your hands their suffering and their need for justice. They asked me to do this, to bring Milosevic to The Hague."

Her resume is already replete with instances of felling the mighty. From deposed premiers Bettino Craxi of Italy and Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan to terrorists Carlos the Jackal and Osama bin Laden, Del Ponte has had a hand in some of the most sensational criminal investigations of the last 20 years.

"Milosevic is a famous name, but for me he is an accused like any other. My task is to bring an accused to court and conduct a trial," she said, bejeweled hands folded atop her sprawling conference table in a pose of self-assurance.

Notoriously all business, Del Ponte nevertheless couldn't contain her pleasure over the imminent fulfillment of the desire to see Milosevic in court. Lips usually pursed in dour determination, she smiled easily and often during a 40-minute interview. Her throaty laugh trilled through the spacious office when she was asked questions she didn't want to answer.

One of those was whether any of the four fellow Yugoslav kingpins indicted along with Milosevic might be willing to testify against him.

"It's possible," she said, smiling Cheshire cat-like. "Let's see what will happen."

Although she is flanked by bodyguards in public, Del Ponte brushes off concerns about her safety in prosecuting a figure widely blamed for more than 200,000 deaths and wide-scale destruction throughout the Balkans. Of far more concern, said the prosecutor, is the safety of witnesses she will call to testify against Milosevic.

To ensure that no one threatens or tampers with those whose tragic stories could put Milosevic behind bars for life, several key witnesses are in a protection program, she said.

Despite her confidence about securing a conviction, she conceded that this most visible of cases is far from open and shut.

"When we issue an indictment, we are convinced that we absolutely have enough evidence to convict an accused," she said. "But we must transfer that evidence from investigation to the trial, and that is sometimes difficult if witnesses are no longer sure, or they decline to testify."

The proceedings against Milosevic are expected to last at least two years. Aside from witness protection, she said, her priorities include ensuring that the defendant's rights are respected and that he is accorded a fair trial.

"We are an international tribunal, and the whole world is watching," she said.

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