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Carla Del Ponte: A Profile

TUESDAY 5th March 2002
Slobodan Milosevic sits behind a bullet-proof screen in a Hague courtroom. He is the first former head of state to be indicted before an international tribunal. And his fate rests largely in the hands of a pint-sized woman from the serene slopes of Switzerland.

Since September 1999, the Chief Prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has been the Swiss lawyer Carla Del Ponte. With her diminutive black robes and shock of fair hair, Del Ponte may resemble a half-pint of Guinness more than an advocate, but this firebrand is no mere mascot.

Since taking her job at The Hague, a catalogue of international convictions has secured Del Ponte's reputation as a relentless pursuer of justice. But when she arrived, she put a poster of what she calls "The Big Three" behind her desk. The faces were those of Milosevic, Karadzic and Mladic, and she will not rest until all three are convicted.

Del Ponte has made many enemies since 1981, when she gave up her private legal practice in Switzerland to become a servant of the state. In contrast to the conventional Swiss way of turning a blind eye on events, Del Ponte's gaze has always been less than benevolent.

In her long role as Swiss Attorney General, she enraged Swiss bankers, the Mafia and international rulers with her demands for accountability. She froze the accounts of Benazir Bhutto and accused Boris Yeltsin of complicity with crime syndicates.

She was the only person in Swiss public life to have a 24-hour bodyguard and armour-plated car. She worked alongside celebrated Mafia hunter Judge Giovanni Falcone in his pursuit of laundered funds, and was in his house when 100lb of Semtex was found in the foundations. When the judge was assassinated afterwards, Del Ponte swore to continue his war on organised crime. Of the personal risk posed to her, she said, "I have no fears. I don't work with fears."

Since her move to the Netherlands, Del Ponte has continued to fall out with people. When Serbian President Kostunica refused to extradite Milosevic, Del Ponte called him a criminal accomplice and earned a rebuke from her boss Kofi Annan.

And she entered a political minefield when she announced an investigation into possible war crimes by Nato during its Kosovo bombing campaign. She is anything but partisan. Milosevic may currently face Del Ponte from the dock, but Bosnian Muslims have stood there, too.

Sicilian mobsters call her "La Puttana - the whore". Milosevic terms her "the new Gestapo". The exodus of banks from her own country following financial investigations made "Del Ponte bad for Switzerland", according to a fellow lawyer.

But in her frontline role at The Hague, this missile is not unguided. Although Del Ponte rarely mentions her own son, as a mother, she has undoubtedly guided the Court in a more feminine direction, to the point where it has made its first conviction for war crimes dealing exclusively with sexual offences. With Del Ponte to speak for them, women's voices are at last being heard.

Giovanni Falcone called his colleague "the personification of stubbornness". Del Ponte is more focused in her approach. She says simply, "I have never served anyone or anything but the law."

Caroline Frost