As anyone who has even slightly followed any of the Serb-prosecuting show trials at the Hague is aware, to say that there have been “irregularities” is the understatement of the century. Bribing and threatening of prosecution witnesses for false testimony is rather the norm. And that’s not to mention judges doing things like cutting off a witness’s microphone if he or she touches on facts that are inconvenient to the prosecution.

Well, some of these irregularities must be threatening to surface more widely than to just the handful of people involved in, or aware of, them. Because the Hague’s International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has announced a probe into these goings-0n, even though they’ve been common practice at the Hague for more than 15 years now.

War crimes court in witness probe

The Yugoslav war crimes tribunal has ordered an investigation into claims that prosecutors intimidated witnesses in the trial of Vojislav Seselj, a nationalist Serb leader.

Judges at the UN court in The Hague referred to statements by witnesses alleging “sleep deprivation during interviews, psychological pressuring, an instance of blackmail, threats or even illegal payment of money”.

“The [trial] chamber ordered the registrar to appoint amicus curiae [a Latin term meaning ‘friend of the court’] to look into the allegations,” Christian Chartier, a spokesman of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia said in a statement on Wednesday.

Chartier said the individual would report to judges within six months as to “whether there were sufficient grounds to initiate contempt proceedings” against investigators in the office of the prosecutor (OTP).

“Certain witnesses who appeared after this trial opened, when testifying before the chamber, referred to pressure or to attempts to intimidate to which they were subjected by investigators for the prosecution as well as to irregularities during their preliminary interviews,” documents released on Wednesday said.

One witness said he and his family were subjected to “tremendous pressure” to give a statement, including 30 to 50 telephone calls a day.

Some said the contents of their statements did not match their words, another was allegedly threatened by investigators that they would “continue questioning him until he signed”.

One witness said “the prosecution had told him that if he testified, after that he could go to America, that he would get a good salary and would get money”.

Another alleged he was poisoned. […]

MORE: Carla Del Ponte investigated over illegal evidence:

Carla Del Ponte, the former war crimes prosecutor who put Balkan warlords and political leaders behind bars, is to be investigated over claims she allowed the use of bullying and bribing of witnesses, or tainted evidence.

Judges at the UN war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague today ordered an independent inquiry into the practices of Del Ponte and two prominent serving prosecutors, Hildegard √úrtz-Retzlaff and Daniel Saxon, after complaints from witnesses that they had been harassed, paid, mistreated and their evidence tampered with.

It is the first time in the tribunal’s 17 years in operation that top prosecutors have faced potential contempt of court rulings. [As I said, something must be threatening to blow the lid off.]

During her eight years as chief prosecutor, Del Ponte, a determined Swiss investigator now serving as her country’s ambassador to Argentina, was a combative and divisive figure. She left her post in 2007.
The allegations against her concern the working practices of her team of investigators in the ongoing prosecution for war crimes of the Serbian politician, Vojislav Seselj, a notorious warlord.

“Some of the witnesses had referred to pressure and intimidation to which they were subjected by investigators for the prosecution,” said a statement from the judge in the Seselj case. “The prosecution allegedly obtained statements illegally, by threatening, intimidating and/or buying [witnesses] off.”

One Serbian witness said he was offered a well-paid job in the US in return for testimony favourable to the prosecution.

“The statements mention sleep deprivation during interviews, psychological pressuring, an instance of blackmail (the investigators offered relocation in exchange for the testimony they hoped to obtain), threats (one, for example, about preparing an indictment against a witness if he refused to testify), or even illegal payments of money.”

An independent investigator, expected to be a French magistrate, is to report on the allegations within six months. Prosecutors in The Hague rejected the allegations while promising to co-operate with the inquiry.

“We believe our staff have conducted their work in a professional way within the rules,” said Frederick Swinnen, special adviser to Serge Brammertz of Belgium, who succeeded Del Ponte as chief prosecutor.

Seselj, who surrendered to the tribunal seven years ago, has been alleging prosecution dirty tricks for years. He is routinely disruptive in court, trading insults. He has already been sentenced to 15 months for contempt of court after revealing the names and addresses of protected witnesses.

Judge Jean-Claude Antonetti, who ordered the Del Ponte investigation and who is presiding over the Seselj trial, has himself come in for strong criticism for “bending over backwards” to accommodate the accused. [That would be a first for the Hague.]

Antonetti said the tribunal was taking the allegations seriously and refused “to allow any doubt to fester concerning a possible violation of the rights of the accused and concerning the investigation techniques employed by certain members of the prosecution”. […]

That last paragraph is what America’s foremost ICTY obeserver, Andy Wilcoxson, says he considers to be the key point:

It seems to me the result of the investigation has already been pre-determined. What do you want to bet they do some dog-and-pony show investigation and find that everything was aboveboard. We’ve seen investigations like this before. When Slobodan Milosevic and Milan Babic died in the Tribunal’s custody they had “inquiries” and found everything was OK there too, even though Milosevic had been poisoned and the ligature marks on Babic’s neck didn’t match the belt they said he “hung himself” with.

A third report: War-crimes judge orders check into reports of prosecutorial misconduct

…Antonetti ordered the inquiry on June 29, but it received scant attention until Wednesday, when a reporter asked about it at The Hague.

“[Carla Del Ponte] is only mentioned because she’s the former head of the office, but the allegations are aimed at the investigators and lawyers who worked for her,” said Frederick Swinnen, special assistant to the current prosecutor at The Hague, in a telephone interview Wednesday with CNN.

The friend of the court has not yet been appointed, he said Wednesday. “There are several candidates; it’s still at a preliminary stage,” he said, adding that he did not expect the inquiry to find any malfeasance.

The inquiry was initiated after a number of witnesses complained “that they had been allegedly intimidated or pressured” by prosecutors, said Swinnen.

“The chamber obviously took these allegations very seriously and decided that it would be wrong to leave any space for doubt arising either on the protection of the rights of the accused or on the investigation techniques by members of OTP [Office of the Prosecutor],” said Christian Chartier, acting spokesman for registry and chambers, in a statement on the court’s website. […]