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War Crimes Prosecutor Seeks to Keep Her 2 Jobs

U.N. official is expected to cease role in Rwanda court and focus on cases in former Yugoslavia.

August 09, 2003|Maggie Farley | Times Staff Writer

UNITED NATIONS — Arguing that a proposal to reform two U.N. war crimes tribunals is actually an effort to quash the courts' independence, chief prosecutor Carla del Ponte appealed to the Security Council on Friday not to halve her duties.

But the majority of the 15-member council said the issue was effectiveness, not independence, and they agreed with Secretary-General Kofi Annan's assessment that prosecuting war crimes for both Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia was too big a job for one person.

For the last four years, Del Ponte has been the chief prosecutor for the two tribunals established to try perpetrators of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and crimes committed during the wars in the former Yugoslavia. Annan recommended last week that a new prosecutor take charge of the Rwanda tribunal so Del Ponte can concentrate on the former Yugoslavia.

The United States and Britain have quietly supported that conclusion, and the U.S. will introduce a resolution next week to split the post.

But fighting to keep both jobs, Del Ponte argued in a private Security Council session that the Tutsi-led Rwandan government wants to prevent her from investigating its own members who are accused of leading reprisals for genocide, which was organized by Hutus.

Although only Hutu leaders have been prosecuted for genocide so far, Del Ponte was about to indict a serving Rwandan general and three other senior army officers for revenge killings, said diplomats close to the tribunal.

Del Ponte told the Security Council that "undue pressures took place to push me to abandon certain investigations," and asked ambassadors to consider the consequences of acceding to the Rwandan government's demands that she be replaced. "What kind of political signal would be sent to those who try to exert pressure on the prosecutor?" she said.

At the center of the issue is an experiment in international justice, and the perceived credibility of a court beset with political problems from its inception.

Tensions between Del Ponte and the Rwandan government have risen since a key suspect, Jean-Bosco Barayagwiza, was acquitted on a technicality in 1999, and the government threatened to halt its cooperation with the court unless the verdict was reversed.

But Rwandan officials say their main concern is the tribunal's effectiveness. In nine years, the court has tried 14 cases and has been treated as "a part-time job of a prosecutor based in another continent," Rwandan Atty. Gen. Gerald Gahima told reporters at the U.N. on Friday.

In a letter to the Security Council, the Rwandan government said Del Ponte has neglected the court, spending only an average of 30 days a year there, and allowed corruption and mismanagement to flourish. The letter also said that prosecution witnesses lacked protection and that genocide suspects had been hired to work for the tribunal and defense teams.

Citing "the failure of the tribunal in general to have any impact on Rwandan society," the Rwandan government also seeks to have some cases moved back from Tanzania into Rwandan courts. The tribunal was established in Tanzania because witnesses' safety couldn't be guaranteed in Rwanda.

But rights groups say the real reason is to put the prosecutions of Tutsi suspects back in domestic courts, where most sentences have been light.

Human Rights Watch and three other rights groups said in a joint statement Thursday that although the tribunal was beset with management problems, including inconsistent leadership, the Security Council must ensure that any changes do not undermine the court's capacity to "render justice fully and impartially."

The U.S. draft resolution, expected to be introduced early next week, will formally propose creating a new prosecutor for the Rwanda court and may emphasize the need to pursue both Hutus and Tutsis.

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