'So Many of the Accused Are Still Fugitives'

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For the past year Carla Del Ponte has served as chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, overseeing the prosecutions of 41 war crimes suspects. Another 26 people publicly indicted by that tribunal remain at large, and the 53-year-old former attorney general of Switzerland, who made her name fighting organized crime, impatiently awaits their arrest. Time reporter Lauren Comiteau met Del Ponte recently in her office at the Hague. Extracts:

TIME: You've stated many times that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his military commander General Ratko Mladic the three men most wanted for war crimes in the former Yugoslavia would one day stand trial here in the Hague. What makes you so sure?

Del Ponte: Oh, I'm wondering, too! Because after one year, nothing has happened. I'm still waiting, hopeful that they will be arrested. The next time I will speak about it is because they have been.

TIME: Rumors are again circulating in the media that Karadzic may be arrested soon.

Del Ponte: I don't know. I am still waiting. I'd be ready for the arrest of Karadzic this very evening.

TIME: Is arresting war crimes suspects your top priority?

Del Ponte: It's a top priority to have all fugitives arrested and in the detention unit here. We have too many accused who are fugitives, and I hope that nato will cooperate more than [it has] until now. In the last year, we've had much more success. The Secretary-General of nato [George Robertson] and [nato's Supreme Allied Commander, U.S. Air Force] General Joseph Ralston told me it's one arrest a month. I say, O.K., that's good. But I need one arrest a week.

TIME: Recently in New York a jury awarded $745 million in damages against Karadzic, to be paid to victims of the Bosnian war. Do judgments like that complement your work?

Del Ponte: Why not? I think it puts pressure on him ... It would be great if we can find some money and freeze it for that decision.

TIME: How would you convince your critics that it wasn't politics that led you not to issue any indictments over last year's nato bombing campaign in Yugoslavia?

Del Ponte: I don't have to convince anybody only myself. What's important is that I'm doing my job absolutely independently, only with respect to the law. Nothing else. But we still have the option of re-opening our inquiry if we have sufficient, concrete elements that something happened. So nothing is definitely closed.

TIME: Do you think the American government respects that?

Del Ponte: I don't care. The important thing is that I am myself [true to] the law. I cannot care about the reaction of all people around the world, because that would be political thinking.

TIME: How would you describe your relations with U.S. officials?

Del Ponte: Actually very good at this time. I have to find the right time to go to Washington because it's important that I meet [Defense Secretary William] Cohen and other authorities. I think I will go in September.

TIME: What do you want to accomplish?

Del Ponte: I want to make sure politics are not involved in our work concerning the arrest of the fugitives. And I want to know what the real and concrete obstacles are that so many accused are still fugitives.

TIME: Has there been any progress in getting your investigators into Serbia and Montenegro to talk to Serb victims of aggression?

Del Ponte: There's been great progress with Montenegro because the Montenegrin government is cooperating with us ... But Serbia? No. No access, nothing. For me, and especially for the Serb victims whom we must interview and have no access to, it's really a great obstacle to our work because I cannot close an inquiry until I have interviews with witnesses.

TIME: How do you respond to recent reports of a possible deal to grant Milosevic immunity if he leaves office?

Del Ponte: The only authority who can withdraw the indictment is the judge who confirmed it upon a request from the prosecutor. I will never request that. And so it will never happen. That's the reality. Everything else is fantasy.