Del Ponte fights to keep job as chief prosecutor in Rwanda genocide tribunal

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Indy Politics

Carla del Ponte will fight to hold on to her post today as chief prosecutor of the UN court trying perpetrators of genocide in Rwanda, amid claims that political opponents are trying to undermine her investigations.

The Swiss prosecutor will meet the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, who is under pressure to remove her from the tribunal, set up to prosecute crimes in Rwanda in 1994. The row is the most serious challenge to the authority of Ms Del Ponte, who is also chief prosecutor for the international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague, a post not thought to be threatened.

Rumours spread last week that Ms Del Ponte will be relieved of prosecuting those responsible for the Rwandan genocide because of the slow pace of the tribunal, in Arusha, Tanzania. Mr Annan is said to have canvassed the UN Security Council about splitting the posts of prosecutor for the two UN tribunals.

Relations between Ms Del Ponte and the Rwandan government have been strained for some time and the authorities in Kigali have backed the idea of separating the jobs. But Ms Del Ponte's supporters say efforts to destabilise her are politically motivated and designed to inhibit investigation of war crimes to which government officials or supporters may be linked.

The chain-smoking prosecutor, who has survived Mafia assassination attempts and has been nicknamed "the new Gestapo" for her ruthless crusade to bring Yugoslav war criminals to justice, has accused Rwanda of preventing witnesses appearing at trials.

She has made clear she intends to investigate abuses by the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Army. Ms Del Ponte's allies say the Rwandan government hopes a different prosecutor would be more susceptible to pressure than the fiercely independent incumbent. They also say there is no reason to change the prosecutor's responsibilities now, and to do so would be to cave into political pressure.

Those who support the plan to split the jobs say that, given the distance between Arusha and The Hague, it is impossible to perform both tasks, and the Rwandan tribunal loses because of higher-profile cases in the other court, such as the trial of the former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic. They are also critical of the protection afforded to witnesses for whom they want greater anonymity.

Florence Hartmann, Ms Del Ponte's spokeswoman, said any move to separate the prosecution posts would "compromise the credibility and the independence of the prosecutor".

All sides acknowledge the slow progress in bringing to justice the organisers of the ethnic violence between Tutsis and Hutus in which more than 500,000 perished. The international court, set up in 1995, has completed 15 cases and has 61 in progress; it holds 55 detainees, more than half of whom are awaiting trial. But it is unclear whether the blame for this lies with the prosecution, rather than court authorities in Arusha responsible for overseeing procedures.

Last year, Ms Del Ponte told the Security Council that Rwanda was refusing to co-operate with the court. The government was also refusing to provide information on false travel documents and turning down requests for witnesses, she said. The Security Council has the final say on prosecutors.