Sunday, May 15, 2005

A 'scramble for court time' in Hague as key Serbs surrender, NYT

By Marlise Simons The New York Times
MONDAY, MAY 16, 2005

THE HAGUE - It happens discreetly, unnoticed by other passengers. The traveler, usually a middle-aged man, gets off the plane at a Dutch airport where plainclothes officials politely receive him. He is escorted to a vehicle, and before long he disappears behind the walls of a high-security jail near The Hague.

Thus, another war crimes suspect is checked in at the compound where the United Nations has its own special cellblock.

This apparently simple routine, repeated more than 20 times this year, still causes a frisson here because among the newcomers are senior commanders of the Serbian and Bosnian Serb military and police, central players in the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

They include men charged with chilling atrocities, including the mass killings of civilians in Sarajevo and Srebrenica, cities whose names have become synonymous with latter-day European barbarity.

At the staid quarters of the UN war crimes tribunal, a few kilometers from the jail, officials are quietly elated.

"Many of the senior suspects are now here," said Jean-Daniel Ruch, a political adviser to Carla Del Ponte, the chief prosecutor. "Instead of pulling and pushing to get detainees, our work has moved more fully into the courtrooms, which is where it belongs."

Confounding many critics who have long called the war crimes tribunal an excessively cumbersome and even dubious experiment in international justice, the court dealing with atrocities of the former Yugoslavia is at the peak of its activity. Six trials are going on every day, alternating in the three courtrooms. Given the many newcomers, court hours now often run from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Three mornings a week, courtroom No.1 is booked for the most notorious trial, that of Slobodan Milosevic, the former Serbian leader and the first president to face war crimes charges, including genocide. In its third year now, the process has been limping along, often delayed by his health problems. Some say it also suffers from its sheer scope: Charges span a decade and the four wars that took more than 200,000 lives and tore up the former communist country of Yugoslavia.

But other trials of Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims involved in the wars are advancing more swiftly or are about to begin.

"There's quite a scramble for court time now," said Jim Landale, a spokesman for the tribunal. "This is the busiest we've ever been." He offered a copy of the tribunal's latest "wanted" poster. Long looking like a dense mosaic, it is now reduced to 10 faces.

The court's cellblock is filled to capacity, with 60 people. Another 18 suspects have been allowed to return home until their trials start.

Obtaining a temporary release has become easier since defense lawyers complained forcefully about long waiting times, sometimes more than two years. Judges have refused such release to some well-known suspects on the ground that they might threaten witnesses or not return for trial.

But last year, there was an outcry among human rights groups when the former leader of Serbia's notorious State Security, Jovica Stanisic, and his deputy, Franko Simatovic, were allowed to return home to Serbia to await trial. The two men ran the dreaded secret police and a brutal militia of paid volunteers during the war.

"The court was either naïve or woefully ignorant of the role the state security services played," Judith Armatta of the Coalition for International Justice said. Most intriguing, perhaps, the judges said the court had taken into account positive letters from the U.S. and French governments, which said the men had been cooperative in the past. Spokesmen in Washington and in Paris declined to comment.

Although the Milosevic trial has caught much of the limelight, 128 people have appeared before the tribunal since its first trial opened in 1995. Of these, 56 have received judgments. Among them are former camp guards or platoon commanders, the kind of low-level actors in the war who court officials concede would not be sent to The Hague today. But during its early years, the court had few senior indictees. That has changed.

The UN Security Council, which created the court in the middle of the Yugoslav wars in 1993, has ordered the prosecutor to focus on the top leaders. The Council also has said that trials should be completed by 2008 and appeals by 2010.

In recent months, the West has increased pressure on Belgrade to turn over the major suspects. The Bush administration suspended aid to Serbia for 2005, and the European Union said that any negotiations for EU membership, which Belgrade covets, cannot seriously start until all indicted war crimes suspects have been sent to The Hague.

As a result, Serbia, with its economy shattered, has talked more than a dozen military and police commanders into surrendering in recent months, threatening some with arrest and negotiating deals with others, including promises of financial help for their families.

Among the tribunal's 10 fugitives today are two prominent men who have been seen in Serbia, the former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his military commander, Ratko Mladic, both indicted on genocide charges. But the government says it does not know where they are.

The prosecution is particularly pleased about the recent arrival of Momcilo Perisic, the Yugoslav Army chief of staff during the wars in Croatia and Bosnia. His trial may rank among the most significant.

Perisic's indictment says that from Belgrade, he secretly ran the surrogate Serbian forces fighting in Croatia and Bosnia, providing the Serb-run troops with personnel, equipment, provisions and payment. His case could directly link Belgrade, and Milosevic, with military actions and atrocities outside Serbia.

At the tribunal prison, the newcomers include former top officials from Macedonia and Kosovo, two other Balkan regions that need approval and money from the West. Croatia, which has not delivered its main fugitive, General Ante Gotovina, has been told its bid to join the European Union will be delayed until it does so.

"This is the first time political pressure has been applied on such a scale, and we see that it works," said Mirko Klarin, director of Sense, a news agency that has monitored the war crimes court from its inception.

With so many new suspects on hand, the tribunal is able to schedule several group trials to speed proceedings. But court officials say privately that even without getting its 10 fugitives, the tribunal cannot meet the Security Council deadline of 2008. Discussions are under way to transfer at least a dozen low-level suspects detained here to stand trial in their home region.

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