The Hague's full house

Its war crimes tribunal fills up with fugitives from the former Yugoslavia, but the big three remain at large.

By Ian Traynor
Published June 9, 2005 3:22PM (EDT)

Behind the barbed wire, the floodlights and the high red-brick walls of the county penitentiary in the Hague Tim MacFadden has never been so busy. The Irish military officer and veteran of U.N. peacekeeping missions in the Middle East and Africa came here eight years ago to take charge of a challenging experiment in international justice -- running the remand unit for the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal, housed within the Dutch prison complex in the Scheveningen suburb of the Hague.

He arrived to find five inmates locked up 22 hours a day and a tribunal haunted by the prospect of failure. Now he guards 62 detainees from the Balkans, each of them with a laptop and a coffee machine, satellite TV and access to a gym. They are allowed out of their individual cells for most of their waking hours and take turns in the kitchen, where some of them have gained reputations as gourmet cooks.

More war crimes suspects are arriving in the Hague every month as the tribunal finally reaches critical mass after years of struggle and controversy. A further 18 have been released pending trial, while 56 have served or are serving jail terms elsewhere. "It's quite a complicated place because of the different problems it generates," says MacFadden.

There has seldom been a jailhouse like the five floors of well-appointed, high-security cells stewarded by the laid-back Irish officer. The average age is 52, old for a male prison population, and the detainees currently include a former head of state, a former prime minister, a former interior minister, a former defense minister and a bunch of former army chiefs of staff and intelligence chiefs.

Inside the detention unit MacFadden has mixed nationalities and former ethnic enemies in a hotchpotch of Serbs, Croats, Muslims, Macedonians and Albanians on each floor in a deliberate strategy to prevent national, political or military organization among the inmates.

"It's very rare that there are any ethnic tensions," says MacFadden of the collection of war crimes suspects held responsible for unleashing eight years of ethnic bloodletting that left about 200,000 people dead and broke Yugoslavia into five states. "These are not habitual criminals. They have no previous experience of being detained. Many held senior positions in public life."

The reason for MacFadden's full house is that the tribunal is going through a period of unparalleled success in getting its hands on inductees, many of whom have been on the run for years.

"This is without doubt the most active and productive period in the life of the tribunal thus far, a period full of challenges, stresses and strains," Judge Theodor Meron, president of the tribunal, said in a letter to the U.N. Security Council this week.

Twenty men, many of them very senior officials, have arrived at Amsterdam's Chisholm airport this year to face international justice in the Hague. Several had vowed no surrender, had gone into hiding and had been protected by powerful political and mafia networks, but have now given themselves up through coercion, desperation or bribery.

"You offer [the inductees] attractive packages and you make the alternative not very attractive," explains Jim Lansdale, tribunal spokesman.

A year ago the tribunal's wanted list of fugitives ran to 21 men. As a result of the surrenders it has shrunk to 10. However, the three biggest names remain at large -- Gen. Ante Gotovina of Croatia and the Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Gen. Ratko Mladic.

The sudden success for Carla del Ponte, the tribunal's aggressive chief prosecutor, is evident at the three trial chambers a couple of miles from the remand center. For the first time since the tribunal was established by the U.N. in 1993 the courts are working at full capacity, running six trials every week.

Success also brings problems. At Washington's insistence, the court is scheduled to conclude all trials by 2008, but this week the tribunal said it would not meet the deadline.

The big change has come in Belgrade, where the Serbian prime minister, Vojislav Kostunica, has abandoned years of virulent hostility to the tribunal and where his powerful security chief, Rade Bulatovic, is twisting the arms of suspects to hand themselves over and make life easier internationally for Serbia.

The U-turn has also been forced by dramatic revelations such as the film footage shown last week of Serbian paramilitaries summarily executing Muslim prisoners in Bosnia in 1995. The other shift has been a rare and successful application of concerted pressure on Kostunica from the European Union after a long and sorry history of E.U. divisions and failures in former Yugoslavia.

"There has been a sea change and the main factor is a fundamental change of attitude in Belgrade," says Jean-Daniel Ruche, political advisor to del Ponte. "This is the first time that we've seen the E.U. as the driving force. It's new and it's good. Kostunica knows that he has no choice but to move toward Europe. And he also now knows that the road to Brussels runs through the Hague."

In April, for example, Germany kept up the pressure on the Serbian government until the very last minute of an E.U. decision on the first stage of membership negotiations with Serbia-Montenegro. The result was the "surrender" of Gen. Nebojsa Pavkovic, the former army chief indicted two years ago for alleged war crimes in Kosovo.

But war crimes investigators are troubled by suspicions that Pavkovic and other prominent Serbs who have recently turned themselves in have been paid large sums of money to do so. One investigator, convinced that large sums are being paid out in Belgrade, said it was "disgusting and outrageous." Another said: "Morally it's very dubious, but legally there's no rule against it."

Carla del Ponte is said to be pragmatic on the matter. According to one official, she takes the view: "We're interested in results. I don't care how they come here as long as I get them."

Ian Traynor

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