Prosecutor Barred From Discussing Her Own Book

Carla Del Ponte is not the quiet type. The tenacious European prosecutor took on some of the most powerful members of the Sicilian mafia, hammering away at their now infamous "pizza connection" with Swiss bankers. As head of the international tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, she hauled Slobodan Milosevic and dozens of others into court for war crimes, and investigated acts of genocide in Rwanda. Her enemies branded her "the whore" and plotted to blow her up with bombs, prompting the Swiss government to assign her around-the-clock bodyguards, who protect her to this day. Her investigative prowess impressed former FBI director Louis Freeh—and infuriated former CIA director George Tenet, whom she badgered for assistance in tracking Milosevic's henchmen. And in her new memoir, "Madame Prosecutor," the English-language edition of which was released this month, she courts fresh controversy by charging that officials at the United Nations and NATO failed to properly investigate allegations of Albanian atrocities against Serbs in Kosovo in 1999.

There is a certain irony, then, in the fact that this fearless law-enforcement legend has been barred from speaking a word about her own book.

"Madame Prosecutor" created a sensation when it was first released in Italian last year, largely due to the passage about the alleged Albanian atrocities. She reports that her U.N. war-crimes team had received tips that some 100 to 300 Serbs who disappeared just after the Kosovo conflict of 1999 had been kidnapped, transported across an international border into Albania and killed. What's more, she's written that some of the younger, healthier captives may have had their organs removed as part of an international trafficking operation. Albanian prosecutors maintain that probes by local authorities and the United Nations yielded no evidence to support the charge. But the charges may have stirred anxiety within the Swiss government, which hired Del Ponte as the country's ambassador to Argentina shortly after she completed the book. The Swiss banned Del Ponte from discussing the matter. As a result, Del Ponte's tome is on tour—without its author.

Del Ponte may be muzzled, but her co-writer, former New York Times reporter Chuck Sudetic, is speaking out. "It's really bizarre and it's really upsetting," says Sudetic, who is traveling the United States in support of the English-language edition. "Carla Del Ponte does not speak with forked tongue. She is a woman who says what she thinks. She does it with style, but she's not afraid to say what she thinks. And she's not afraid to say it to anybody."

A spokesman for the Swiss Embassy in Washington told NEWSWEEK that for Del Ponte to "express herself" on any previous activity would be incompatible with her "present function." But the spokesman declined to elaborate on how the ban came about, or whether it applied to any other members of the country's diplomatic corps. A source close to Del Ponte says she was not notified of the ban until after she assumed her post, even though she had already finished the book and received authorization to travel to Milan for its publication.

Del Ponte's silence has taken a serious toll on sales, says Judith Gurewich, Del Ponte's U.S. publisher. Her company, Other Press, printed 15,000 copies of "Madame Prosecutor," but has so far sold only 600. Without the star of the show, the media backed out of interviews, and plans for the book tour had to be scaled back. "My dream was that Stephen Colbert would have interviewed her," says Gurewich, who consulted with Swiss officials herself, bidding unsuccessfully to persuade them to lift the ban. "I was told that, as the ambassador of Switzerland in Argentina, she can't toot her own horn about her book. Sometimes politics trumps human rights. They will claim it's for the greater good, but I don't think that's acceptable."

So what has the Swiss so worried? Some Balkans specialists suggest the country's leaders may fear a coming political storm. The book's release in Italian last spring coincided with Switzerland's politically sensitive decision to recognize Kosovo as an independent country—a stance shared by the United States and much of Western Europe, but bitterly opposed by Russia. The political fallout from allegations about possible crimes committed by Kosovo's Albanians may well have put top Swiss officials on edge; some Swiss compatriots, Del Ponte wrote, warned her about discussing issues of Albanian violence in her book. At the same time, a source close to Del Ponte, who would not speak on the record due to diplomatic sensitivities, hinted that the Swiss foreign minister may be wary of being shown up on the world stage by a star ambassador. Whatever the case, the book did succeed in drawing attention to the controversy; on Feb. 23 the Serbian government announced that it would press Albanian authorities for more information about the alleged organ trafficking. And there is no question that the political wounds in the Balkans continue to fester nearly a decade after Kosovo's drive for independence and the painful breakup of the former Yugoslavia. (On Thursday, international judges convicted five of Milosevic's associates on charges of war crimes, while acquitting the Serbs' wartime president.)

Sudetic acknowledges that dark conspiracy theories are commonplace in the region, which he covered for the Times, among others, during the 1990s (Sudetic, who also did a stint as an analyst with the Balkans tribunal, now works for the Open Society Institute, a George Soros-backed policy group). But he maintains that this case involves hard evidence. According to the book, investigators found medical paraphernalia and blood traces at a site pinpointed by tipsters when they visited in 2004. Still, without any bodies, they lacked definitive proof of a crime. Finding witnesses proved a challenge. The tipsters, a group of journalists, would not reveal their sources. And people living near the site would not cooperate.

Del Ponte's tribunal did not have jurisdiction to pursue the case, since the crime was alleged to have taken place outside of Kosovo and after the armed conflict there had ceased. Local authorities in Albania and Kosovo would have had to overcome the memories of Serbian atrocities against their own people, still fresh in their minds, in vigorously investigating any crimes. Anger ran deep. At one point, Del Ponte wrote, the local Albanian prosecutor told one of her investigators, "If they did bring Serbs over the border from Kosovo and killed them, they did a good thing." The U.N. mission in Kosovo, which had jurisdiction in the fledgling state immediately following the conflict, took a preliminary look alongside Del Ponte's team. But they ran up against the same problems finding witnesses in the small, close-knit Albanian community, and let it drop. (A U.N. official told the Associated Press in November that the organization's investigators had found no substantial evidence to support claims that Serbians were taken to Albania and killed.)

Leaders in Kosovo and Serbia have blasted Del Ponte's charges as an unsubstantiated "fantasy," claiming she never raised the issue in private meetings. It is not the first time she has attracted ire. Opponents accuse her of botching the Milosevic trial, thereby allowing him to die in custody at the Hague in 2006, five years after his capture, with no verdict ever rendered. She failed to provide adequate protection for her witnesses, critics claim; some were killed as a result, leaving others too spooked to testify. And she was ultimately ousted from the Rwandan war-crimes tribunal in Tanzania following complaints that she poorly managed the investigations while splitting her time between the Rwandan and Balkan inquiries. (Del Ponte maintains that the Rwandan government objected to her pursuit of cases against Tutsis as well as Hutus.)

Whatever her reputation, her latest charges have lit a fuse. Shortly after "Madame Prosecutor" was published, Human Rights Watch released a report offering evidence its researcher maintains independently verify Del Ponte's claims. Serbian nationalists have seized upon the story, especially the sensational organ-smuggling elements, to drive home their message that they've been unfairly demonized in the world's eyes. "To date, the main charges have always been about crimes against Albanians. But with this book, suddenly we have a story about crimes by Albanians," explained Serbian human-rights activist Natasa Kandic. "Albanians reject that because they say the Kosovo administration didn't have power at this time. They say Carla Del Ponte has no evidence. But where are the remains of these hundreds of people? Where are the secret mass graves?" Armed with newly obtained photos purportedly showing Kosovo's soldiers in Albania, Serbian officials are now pressing Albanian authorities to hand over information. But they are meeting with resistance, as Albanian and Kosovar officials maintain the matter has been adequately investigated and put to rest.

The politically sensitive subject may soon flare up further. Dick Marty of the Council of Europe, whose last investigation exposed the CIA's secret network of prisons involved in extraordinary renditions, is now on the case. And Sudetic says he expects additional revelations about the alleged crimes to emerge within the next six weeks. At that point, authorities in Kosovo and at the United Nations would have their hands forced to, as he puts it, "do what they should have done a lot earlier—and that is, take a really good, hard look at war crimes committed against Serbs by Albanians, which [the Albanians] just blanket deny."

As the controversy swirls, Del Ponte sits silent at her diplomatic outpost in Buenos Aires. In her book, she decries what she calls a "muro di gomma"—a bureaucratic "wall of rubber"—that creates a climate of complacency in which politics trumps the pursuit of justice. Maybe she feels she's behind such a wall herself now. We don't know; she can't say.