Last week, Ante Gotovina, the Croatian general wanted for war crimes, was arrested on the Spanish island of Tenerife. He has meanwhile been flown to The Hague, where he has to stand trial before the United Nations war crimes tribunal. Gotovina was indicted in 2001 on charges that he was the commanding officer responsible for atrocities committed in 1995 when Croatian forces attempted to reclaim control of the Krajina region.
Carla Del Ponte, the UN tribunal’s special prosecutor said last week to the Associated Press that “she had known since September that Gotovina was in Spain, though she kept it secret.” This is a very interesting admission, shedding light on the impartiality, or rather the lack thereof, of the UN prosecutor.
On 19 September the international prosecutor told the London newspaper Daily Telegraph that the Catholic Church in Croatia was protecting the fugitive General Gotovina: “I have information he is hiding in a Franciscan monastery and so the Catholic Church is protecting him. I have taken this up with the Vatican and the Vatican refuses totally to co-operate with us […] They said they have no intelligence and I don’t believe that. I think that the Catholic Church has the most advanced intelligence services,” Del Ponte said.
The London paper added:
The Vatican could probably pinpoint exactly which of Croatia’s 80 monasteries was sheltering [Gotovina] ‘in a few days’, Mrs del Ponte told The Daily Telegraph at her offices in The Hague. Instead, she had been ‘extremely disappointed’ to encounter a wall of silence from the Vatican. Frustrated by months of secret but fruitless appeals to leading Vatican officials, including a direct appeal to Pope Benedict XVI, Mrs del Ponte has decided to make the matter public.
The international press devoted a lot of attention to Del Ponte’s accusation that the Vatican was shielding a war criminal. Croatia’s bishops told Catholic News Service that the UN prosecutor “put forward a whole series of unacceptable theories that would even seem extraordinary for a colloquial conversation, not to mention for the high authority that she represents.” They asked the UN international tribunal for an explanation of Del Ponte’s comments – but got none.
Croatian newspaper journalists who phoned Croatian monasteries to enquire whether they were hiding the general were told by a a monk at the monastery on the Adriatic island of Vis: “Gotovina currently cannot come to the phone, because he is sleeping.”
On 30 September, the last day of the very month during which Del Ponte now admits that she learned Gotovina was actually in Spain, the UN prosecutor criticised Croatia for “the [inadequate] level of Croatia’s co-operation with The Hague war crimes tribunal.” After meeting Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader and President Stipe Mesic, Ms Del Ponte said: “You cannot imagine how disappointed I am. We have always [the] same problem, Gotovina is still at large.”
Three days later, however, on 3 October, the prosecutor said exactly the opposite: “I can say that, for a few weeks now, Croatia has been co-operating fully with us and is doing everything it can to locate and arrest Ante Gotovina.” Two contradictory statements referring to the same period indicate that the UN prosecutor must have been lying at least once. How trustworthy can a court case be when the prosecutor is caught saying things that are not true?
It was generally assumed at the time that the sudden change in Del Ponte’s attitude towards Croatia had to do with the negotiations that were going on at the time between the European Union and Turkey. In early October Austria was threatening to veto the negotiations about Turkey’s admission to the EU if the latter was not prepared to start admission talks with Croatia as well. The EU said, however, that talks with Croatia where out of the question unless the country was prepared to collaborate with the UN war crimes tribunal. Though Del Ponte is a Swiss citizen, who has nothing to do with the EU, and though as a public prosecutor she is not allowed to be involved in politics, she was apparently playing her own, or somebody else’s, political game.
French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy commented laconically on her curious change of attitude towards Croatia:
For several months the prosecutor of the International Penal Court has been saying that the Croatian government does not collaborate in finding war criminals. Since a few hours ago Mrs Del Ponte is telling us that the Croatian government is collaborating perfectly with the Court. Hence, we change our position and we no longer object to negotiations with Croatia.
According to her statement of 10 December, Del Ponte must have known when she was accusing Croatia on 30 September that Ante Gotovina was not in Croatia. Nevertheless, the prosecutor has not retracted her accusations that the Croatian Catholic Church was sheltering him. “Will Del Ponte be ashamed at all after her statements, which inflicted great damage on the Roman Catholic Church, that Gotovina was hiding in monasteries here and in Croatia?” the chairman of Bosnia's tripartite presidency, Ivo Miro Jovic, asked last week.
On 20 October Croatia’s Franciscan monasteries had requested a public apology from the UN prosecutor: “We have been deeply injured by these undeserved accusations. Although we are ready to forgive you, our love for truth entitles us to expect a public apology.” Del Ponte remained silent, even though by then she knew that the fugitive general was hiding in Spain.
Apparently the UN prosecutor is not prepared to retract her false accusation nor to offer apologies. What she is prepared to do, however, is to say two different things within a period of three days and to accuse the Croatian government and the Catholic Church that they are hiding a suspected war criminal in a Croatian monastery when she knows this is not true. The question is: how fair can an international tribunal be if its prosecutor plays political games, makes false accusations and cannot always be relied on to tell the truth?