Prosecutor Is Fired Up for Trial of Milosevic


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.

Asked what her reaction will be if Milosevic insists, as is his right, that the entire 54-page indictment be read in court in his native Serbo-Croatian, she shrugged and said: "It doesn't matter.

"We are in court to make sure the accused is aware of the facts. I'm told he didn't read the indictment in the Belgrade jail or here when it was handed to him, so we must make sure he knows the charges--that's part of getting a fair trial," she said.

Born in Lugano, Switzerland, on Feb. 9, 1947, Del Ponte studied in London, Geneva and the Swiss capital, Bern, before earning her law degree in 1972. She joined a private law firm, then opened her own in 1975, working in her hometown until being named an investigating magistrate for the Lugano region in 1981.

Fluent in French, Italian, German and English, she quickly established herself as a savvy investigator of cross-border crimes. She played key roles in probing the Sicilian Mafia's "Pizza Connection" in laundering drug money through Switzerland to the United States.

She dismayed the secretive world of Swiss banking with her readiness to seize assets and expose suspect accounts of organized crime figures and prominent politicians.

She also was instrumental in bringing corruption convictions against Craxi and Bhutto, as well as a former Mexican president's brother, Raul Salinas de Gortari. Under her direction, investigators also pursued Saudi-born Bin Laden for allegedly masterminding a 1997 attack on tourists in Luxor, Egypt, that killed 58, many of them fellow Swiss.

Before replacing Canadian Louise Arbour at the U.N. tribunal in September 1999, Del Ponte served as Switzerland's attorney general and as a member of an international task force investigating white-collar crime.

Since arriving in The Hague, she has made it a priority to reel in war crimes suspects who hold high office as well as those lower in the chain of command.

However, since the tribunal lacks its own police force, it requires a commitment by governments whose troops patrol Bosnia and Kosovo to arrest suspects.

Del Ponte finds it baffling and upsetting that tens of thousands of international peacekeepers have been deployed in Bosnia for more than five years and that none have been able to locate or apprehend Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Gen. Ratko Mladic.

"I've been saying this since I got here--SFOR must be more proactive in locating and arresting fugitives," she said of the peacekeeping operation in Bosnia.

But the Serb-ruled fragments of Bosnia are the last refuge of war crimes suspects, she said, and now that even the Yugoslav government is cooperating, she hopes the foreign forces in Bosnia will be shamed into more aggressive pursuit.

Calling for more NATO backbone and more financial support for a caseload that will see six trials underway by September, the prosecutor warned the international community: "Justice is not cheap."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World