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Del Ponte: success at tribunal but controversial in Switzerland

Carla del Ponte: a mixed track record in fighting crime in Switzerland

(Keystone Archive)

The chief prosecutor at the International War Crimes Tribunal, Carla del Ponte, has been hailed for her long battle to bring to justice the former Yugoslav leader, Slobodan Milosevic, who was finally extradited to The Hague last week. In Switzerland, however, she is more of a controversial figure.

Understandably, del Ponte expressed deep satisfaction over Milosevic's extradition after two years of efforts to detain him on war crimes charges. But she also made it clear she wants to bring other high-ranking war criminals to justice.

Among the people she has targeted are the former Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, and his right-hand man, General Ratko Mladic.

But not every one in Switzerland has such good memories of her past work.

Del Ponte is a controversial figure in Switzerland, where she served as federal prosecutor between 1994 and 1999. Some observers see her as a fearless and outspoken fighter against organised crime and money laundering, while others have described her as an "unguided missile".

Her critics have portrayed her as high-handed, and have pointed out her mixed professional track record. They say only few of the high-profile prosecution cases she opened have been brought to a successful conclusion.

Del Ponte made a name for herself as a senior justice official in canton Ticino. During her nine years in office, she played a leading role in cracking down on a major drug trafficking ring and illegal financial transactions.

She survived an assassination attempt in 1989 by suspected mafia killers. Del Ponte was a witness in a mafia trial at the time and accompanied the leading Italian anti-mafia judge, Giovanni Falcone, in Sicily.

But her success rate dipped after being named federal prosecutor in 1994. Some of the cases she brought against suspected terrorists, Algerian militants, a former Swiss army colonel and journalists, ended in acquittals.

She launched investigations against organised crime between Russia and Switzerland. However her efforts to block assets in a money laundering case in Mexico, involving the brother of a former president, ended in failure.

At the age of 52, Del Ponte was appointed chief prosecutor in The Hague - only the third in the history of the tribunal. Her staff, including more than 500 lawyers and policemen, deals with war crimes in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

Even her nomination to the post caused a degree of controversy over who was to pay her salary. Opponents did not see why the Swiss government should have to fork out a contribution for a Swiss person in an international post, but the Swiss government was adamant.

It agreed to pay about SFr1 million ($1.7 million) towards her salary for her four-year term, which will run out in 2003.

by Urs Geiser


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