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U.N. prosecutor has harsh words for Serbia

The country has balked at handing over two key war crimes suspects, Carla Del Ponte tells the Security Council.

December 11, 2007|Maggie Farley | Times Staff Writer

UNITED NATIONS — U.N. war crimes prosecutor Carla Del Ponte told the Security Council on Monday that Serbia should not be allowed to join the European Union unless it hands over two top suspects who remain at large more than a decade after the Bosnian war ended.

Del Ponte told the council that after eight years as chief prosecutor, it would be a "great disappointment" to leave office this month while Serbia continued to protect two fugitives from the 1992-95 war in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

"It is a stain on the international tribunal's work that two individuals indicted for genocide and responsible for the worst crimes committed in Europe since the Second World War are still fugitives," the Swiss prosecutor said. "The fact that Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic are still at large undermines the very idea of international justice."

The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia has charged the pair with the genocide of Bosnian Muslims, including the slaughter of 8,000 Muslims at Srebrenica, during the war that followed the breakup of the Yugoslav federation. Two other suspects, Stojan Zupljanin and Croatian Serb Goran Hadzic, also remain free.

For Del Ponte, her term at the tribunal has been a bitter contest with Serbia's authorities to see whether she would give up before they turned in the fugitives, who are still viewed by some in the country as national heroes.

Serbian authorities "chose not to arrest" Mladic in spring 2006 even though they knew where he was and had contact with him, Del Ponte said, and Karadzic was living in Belgrade as recently as 2004.

When a new government took office in June and immediately helped arrest two other suspects, Zdravko Tolimir and Vlastimir Djordjevic, Del Ponte felt confident that Mladic and Karadzic would soon be in custody as well. Serbia had applied to join the European Union, and its membership would depend on her report that the government was fully cooperating. Still optimistic, she gave Serbia good marks this year, and in November the EU approved the first step to its accession.

But Monday, Del Ponte urged the EU to not accept Serbia as a member before both suspects were in custody. Doing so would deprive the tribunal of its "most effective tool," she warned.

She has also asked the Security Council to delay discussions about statehood for Kosovo because she fears that the EU will trade membership for Serbia's allowing Kosovo to secede. On Monday in Brussels, foreign ministers discussed both issues but reached no conclusions.

Serbian Ambassador Pavle Jevremovic praised Del Ponte's "commitment and determination" and said Belgrade was trying to cooperate fully with the tribunal. "I believe that the four remaining fugitives . . . will be located and apprehended in the nearest future," he told the council.

Del Ponte can count successes during her term. The trials of 44 high-level officials, including a head of state and prime ministers, have proven that genocide was committed in Srebrenica, that rape can be considered a war crime, and that crimes against civilians will be punished with the harshest sentences.

As Del Ponte leaves at year's end to become the Swiss ambassador to Argentina, trials of 27 suspects are underway and 11 more are waiting to start. She will hand over her post to Serge Brammertz, the Belgian prosecutor who has been in charge of investigating the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

The court is due to shut down in 2010, but Del Ponte urged the council to keep it open until its business is finished.

"The tribunal should not close the door until they have Karadzic and Mladic," she said, not only for the panel's credibility, but for the sake of the victims' families.

Del Ponte hand-delivered a letter from a group called the Mothers of Srebrenica to the president of the Security Council on Monday. The group has criticized Del Ponte for not doing enough to render justice for their nearly 8,000 sons and husbands who were slaughtered in 1995.

"They are absolutely right," Del Ponte said in an earlier interview with The Times. "If there are suspects who are still active in the political life and nobody is caring about them, then the law is failing."

For eight years, tracking down fugitives has been as much a compulsion as lighting her next Marlboro, but the hard-charging, chain-smoking Del Ponte has vowed that at the end of the month, she will give up both. Not easily, though.

"I still have a few weeks left, so let me have that," she said.

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