In a boost to U.N. efforts to prosecute suspected war criminals, the top Bosnian Croat suspect and nine others accused of atrocities against Muslims turned themselves in Monday.
Their surrender, in return for assurances of a speedy trial, was welcomed by the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal and international officials in Bosnia as a significant step in creating a permanent peace.
Although the suspects, as well as Croatian and U.S. authorities, said the handover was voluntary, Zagreb officials, who still wield considerable influence in Bosnian Croat areas, were under heavy economic pressure from abroad to turn the men over for trial.
Having the suspects “surrender voluntarily” saved Croat President Franjo Tudjman the political embarrassment of having to order Bosnian Croat authorities to arrest and extradite them to The Hague, where the tribunal is based.
Top suspect Dario Kordic proclaimed his “clear conscience before God and before the Croatian people” before boarding a Dutch military plane bound for the Netherlands, where he faces charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Kordic was the leader of the Bosnian branch of Tudjman’s Croatian Democratic Union political party. Along with Gen. Tihomir Blaskic, who is already on trial in The Hague, Kordic is charged with commanding Bosnian Croat troops who rampaged through at least 14 towns in the Lasva Valley of central Bosnia, murdering and torturing hundreds of Muslims and torching their homes.
Kordic and the nine other suspects, all accused of taking part in the campaign, were put in a maximum-security prison outside The Hague Monday. They plan to plead innocent at arraignments Wednesday.
“The Bosnian and Croat leaders have finally accepted the responsibility to help turn in indicted war criminals,” U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen said Monday in Paris, calling the surrender “a small step, but a very important one symbolically.”
The arrival of Kordic and the other suspects buoyed officials at the U.N. court, which has faced repeated criticism for its inability to put senior officials on trial.
Of the 77 suspects publicly indicted by the tribunal, only 20 are in custody and just two have been convicted. Almost all of the 57 suspects still at large are Bosnian Serbs, including the tribunal’s most-wanted men: former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his war-time military chief, Gen. Ratko Mladic.
While reveling in the sudden doubling of the suspects in its custody, the tribunal again urged Serb authorities “to play a similar role in assuring the surrender” of suspects inside their territory.
Monday’s handover, Cohen said, “should send a very clear message to the Serb and Bosnian Serb leadership that time is running out.”
“They have to turn over all the indictees to The Hague. That’s the only way they can ever hope to rejoin Europe,” he said.
Officials trying to solidify the fragile peace in Bosnia also welcomed the surrender, the result of one-on-one negotiations between Tudjman and U.S. envoy Robert Gelbard.
The removal of war crimes suspects “will have an effect on decisions that people make about whether to return home or not,” said Kris Janowski of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.