Milosevic could escape penalty

Some fear diplomacy will lead to offer of war-crimes immunity

He `has to ... be responsible'

War In Yugoslavia

May 20, 1999|By Tom Bowman and Mark Matthews | Tom Bowman and Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- War crimes prosecutors are using some of NATO's most secret intelligence to build cases against Yugoslavia's top political and military leaders. But there are concerns that the alliance's diplomatic deal-making will allow Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic to escape justice.

While leaders in the United States, Russia and other countries work feverishly on a diplomatic plan to end the 8-week-old conflict, prosecutors with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia at The Hague, Netherlands, are collecting information on the roles of Milosevic and his top commanders in atrocities in Kosovo.

At some point, the two tracks are bound to converge, because they both involve Milosevic's hold on power.

Nina Bang-Jensen of the Coalition for International Justice, a Washington-based human rights organization, says "our greatest fear" is that as part of a diplomatic solution to the conflict over Kosovo, the West will offer Milosevic "de facto immunity," under which he would avoid arrest or, if toppled from power, be allowed exile in a country that would refuse an arrest order from the Hague tribunal.

That's the worry at The Hague, even though the United States and other allies are providing prosecutors with crucial evidence from highly classified intelligence information, including the results of eavesdropping on conversations. In addition to the evidence, the tribunal relies on the allies to apprehend war criminals.

"There is very serious concern that member states of the United Nations may fail to live up to their obligations," said Paul Risley, a spokesman for the tribunal, noting that some countries might seek "political solutions to what for us is a straight question of legality."

During a recent visit to Washington, Louise Arbour, the tribunal's chief prosecutor, pointed to the West's failure to capture Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, the two chief Bosnian Serb war-crimes suspects, whom Milosevic has been protecting since they were indicted.

Their arrests might have deterred atrocities in Kosovo, she said.

Karadzic lives in a French-controlled zone of Bosnia. But a former U.S. official says neither France nor the United States has been willing to risk the casualties that might result from apprehending him or Mladic.

A top Pentagon official said U.S. Special Forces troops are available in Bosnia to arrest the suspects but added, "I haven't seen a push" from top military and civilian officials.

Some close to the war-crimes effort see a reluctance by some Clinton administration officials to press hard for Milosevic's indictment. They also note that no top administration official has publicly called him a "war criminal," a label given him in 1992 by Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger after the atrocities in Bosnia.

Three years later, Milosevic was a key figure in Serbian acquiescence to the Dayton peace accords that ended the fighting in Bosnia.

"There's a political element here. Milosevic is seen as instrumental to any deal," said Michael P. Scharf, a former State Department lawyer who worked on the Bosnian war-crimes trials.

It was U.S. policy in Bosnia not to deal with indicted war criminals, but the Clinton administration has said it could negotiate with Milosevic even if he was under indictment for war crimes. But officials try to avoid getting pinned down on specifics.

`Accept responsibility'

Asked twice in a television interview Sunday whether Milosevic will be denied immunity, Undersecretary of State Thomas R. Pickering said, "Mr. Milosevic, we have said many times, is an individual who will have to accept responsibility for the actions he's committed. The man has to stand and be responsible for what he has done. The international community has a process. We will contribute to that process."

David Scheffer, the administration's top official dealing with war crimes, was asked in an interview whether administration officials thought indicting Milosevic now would be "inconvenient."

"I see nothing of that on the inside," he said. "There's no discussion that I'm aware of of somehow seeking to derail or retard the investigation of anyone."

Graham Blewitt, Arbour's deputy on the international tribunal, said a NATO grant of immunity to Milosevic would have no legal standing with the independent court. "It may complicate the politics," he said. "It wouldn't stop us in anything we were planning to do."

Still, the practical impact of an immunity deal could be a drying up of intelligence information needed to indict Milosevic. There could also be a reluctance or refusal to apprehend Milosevic in Belgrade.

While the investigation continues, the administration is trying to find a diplomatic end to the war, using Russian envoy Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari and others as intermediaries.

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