A symbol for war crime survivors or dogmatic fanatic?

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 March, 2006, 12:00am

When Carla Del Ponte started work in The Hague more than six years ago, she pinned the mugshots of three men to the wall behind her desk: Slobodan Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic.

The chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia was determined to put the Balkan conflict's 'Big Three' behind bars for their alleged roles in Europe's worst atrocities since the second world war. But fate played a different hand last Saturday, when Milosevic, the Serbian leader who became president of Yugoslavia, died in custody months before a verdict was due.

The other two - former Bosnian Serb leader Karadzic and his army chief Mladic - remain at large, accused of orchestrating the siege of Sarajevo, which cost 10,000 lives, and the massacre of more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica during the 1992-95 Bosnian war.

'Now more than ever I expect Serbia to finally arrest and transfer Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic to The Hague as soon as possible. The death of Slobodan Milosevic makes it even more urgent for them to face justice,' Ms Del Ponte, 59, said.

'I deeply regret the death of Slobodan Milosevic. It deprives the victims of the justice they need and deserve.'

Standing just 1.52 metres in her black prosecution robes, and crowned by a head of white hair, Ms Del Ponte was once jokingly likened to a half-pint of Guinness by the BBC. But any comparison to that convivial brew is lost on those who accuse the steely Swiss lawyer of mishandling Milosevic's four-year trial.

Ms Del Ponte's detractors argue that her insistence on bundling 66 charges relating to 250,000 deaths in Kosovo, Bosnia and Croatia was akin to using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

Lord Owen, the European Union's special negotiator in Yugoslavia during the Balkan conflict, believes Milosevic would have been convicted in a shorter, less ambitious trial.

'We should have had a much shorter indictment,' Lord Owen said. 'Of course Milosevic finessed it very cleverly and extended the trial period, but we should have brought the trial to a verdict on a narrower number of charges.'

An editorial in The Times lambasted the 'rambling and incoherent' trial, asserting that by 'allowing Milosevic to list more than 1,600 defence witnesses was indulgent to the point of paralysis'.

The strategy, however, was typical of Ms Del Ponte, a feisty, chain-smoking mother of an adult son who has made a virtue of pursuing 'complete justice' for all those who suffered at the hands of war criminals in the former Yugoslavia.

'I still get emotional when I meet survivors,' she told the Dutch financial daily, Het Financieele Dagblad. 'You feel you are the symbol of something they must reach: justice.'

Born in Lugano, Ms Del Ponte grew up speaking Italian and became fluent in English, French and German. She studied law in Geneva, Bern and Britain before working as a local lawyer, then investigating magistrate and finally public prosecutor in the picturesque lakeside city of her birth.

From there she rose to the office of Swiss attorney-general, a position she held until joining the UN Security Council's international criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda in 1999. She first made a name for herself in the late 1980s by taking on the Sicilian mafia. But Ms Del Ponte's unravelling of the links between Swiss money launderers and the mafia's drug trade in Italy - the so-called 'pizza connection' - came at a cost.

She narrowly escaped a bomb planted in the house in Palermo where she was staying, and became the only Swiss national to be placed under 24-hour protective guard. Her friend and colleague, Italian magistrate Giovanni Falcone, was killed when the mafia blew up his car, but his death merely hardened her resolve to pursue justice.

Having lifted the Swiss banking system's veil of secrecy through her battles with the mafia, other high-profile cases followed. She implicated former Russian president Boris Yeltsin in a financial scandal, seized US$100 million in illicit funds from the brother of one-time Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari and froze the bank accounts of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

But it is in The Hague that Ms Del Ponte has really made her mark. She has secured scores of convictions against the minnows who carried out genocide and crimes against humanity at the close of the 20th century.

The big one - Milosevic - got away. And with the mugshots of Karadzic and Mladic looming over her from behind her desk, the job is far from over.