by Emir Suljagic
A few hours before the first president of Bosnia-Herzegovina Alija Izetbegović was buried, on the morning of Wednesday 22 October 2003, the prosecutor’s office of the Hague tribunal disclosed at its regular press conference that Izetbegović had been under investigation by its investigators. By making public in this way on the day of the burial something that was in any case no secret outside its walls, the prosecutor’s office labelled Izetbegović as a potential war criminal, knowing that he would never have an opportunity to defend himself from the charge. What is more, by issuing such generalized allegations, the prosecutor’s office besmirched the name of a man who was still lying on his bier without giving any answer to a single one of the key questions: why had the investigation been carried out, what stage had it reached, when had it been halted, and was it halted before or simply because of his death?
This high-handed, tasteless behaviour does not show merely a lack of diplomatic tact; it reflects the short-sighted policy of the Hague tribunal prosecutors. The day that Alija Izetbegović died, the Tribunal lost an ally in the former Yugoslavia who was probably unique in an environment that is for the most part hostile to the court at The Hague. The moment that the prosecutor’s office, while his body was still warm, announced that he was under investigation for war crimes, it lost a lot of good friends.
It was no secret to Alija Izetbegović that he was under investigation. From the very outset he was aware of every step taken by the investigators and of every tiny detail of their investigation. To a close collaborator who had brought him the bad news he said, with the experience of someone who had spent most of his life as the target of various kinds of police investigation: ‘Better it’s the Tribunal doing it than Belgrade.’ Furthermore, every branch of the power structure over which he had direct influence as a member of the B-H Presidency continued to cooperate with the Tribunal. Even after he had stepped down from power, he continued to exert informal pressure on the Bosniak authorities to cooperate. As he was still reading his farewell speech in the Presidency building, a score of Tribunal investigators was carrying Presidency archives out of the back door with his individual approval; he personally ordered that all archives of the SDA should likewise be placed at the disposal of the prosecutor’s office.
Izetbegović did not have to like the Tribunal, but respect for that institution was his legal obligation - and it was one that, unlike all the other politicians in the former Yugoslavia, he fulfilled. Since the end of the war the Agency for Information and Documentation has provided the prosecutor’s office with some three million documents, which to this day are being used in numerous trials. Two chiefs of general staff of the Army of B-H, a corps commander, a divisional commander and a brigade commander have been indicted to date by the Tribunal; their peaceful surrender, without any orchestrated protests, threats or calls for a coup d’état, is beyond any shadow of doubt the legacy of Izetbegović.
The mistake made by chief prosecutor Carla del Ponte, that is to say her spokeswoman, was all the greater in that her statement was not made in response to a direct question from a journalist: a Serbian reporter had simply asked her to comment on yet another vague claim by Vladan Batić, the Serbian minister of justice, as to how in March 2001 Del Ponte had promised him that charges would be drawn up [against Izetbegović]. For the prosecutor’s office to give ammunition to nobodies like Batić - who openly refuses to hand over the four army and police generals indicted for crimes against humanity in Kosovo, and whose government has for years been hiding General Ratko Mladić and other Serb officers indicted for genocide in Srebrenica - will do no good to anyone. Neither to Batić, nor to the victims - and least of all to the office of the prosecutor.
When the Serbian prime minister Zoran winđić was killed in Belgrade on 12 March this year , Del Ponte took the opportunity to make a statement in which she called him ‘a friend’ and cancelled all other engagements in order to be able to attend his funeral. The Serbian government rejected this, slyly advising her not to come and implicitly blaming her for his death, thereby provoking something of a diplomatic scandal. After the death of Alija Izetbegović, neither the Tribunal nor the prosecutor’s office (little different in this from the SDS) sent a cable of condolences either to his family or to the government; while Del Ponte - one day after his funeral procession and two days after that shameful statement - held a press conference in Sarajevo without any apology for the earlier faux pas .
winđić was perhaps in her eyes a greater friend of the Tribunal than Izetbegović. But the long list of things that Izetbegović did for and because of the Tribunal leaves no doubt about who was objectively and truly the Tribunal’s greatest friend in the former Yugoslavia.
As president of a country condemned to partition and the unquestioned political leader of a people condemned to death, Izetbegović deserved - and at least in death should have received, along with hundreds of thousands of victims - a certain measure of humanity, professional conduct and compassion. All the more so because, of all possible places, the Hague Tribunal is the one in which his and our Bosnian right to exist is incontrovertible.
Translated from Dani (Sarajevo), 31 October 2003