A Dogged UN Judge Propels 'The Real Trial of the Century' Richard Goldstone, Chief Prosecutor of the War Crimes Tribunal, Says It's Essential That 'The Truth Be Told, and the Story Set Straight' about Events in Bosnia

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BOSNIAN Serb prison camp chief Dragan Nikolic is nowhere to be found. But that does not matter to Richard Goldstone, chief prosecutor in the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal.

Last Friday, the tribunal issued an international arrest warrant for Mr. Nikolic, who allegedly directed the beating to death of prisoners with baseball bats at the Susica prison camp in Bosnia and told his terrorized inmates, "I am God here."

It was the first of about 42 arrest warrants that, in the coming months, Judge Goldstone will oversee. They will include, in the spring, warrants for Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Gen. Ratko Mladic, who Goldstone indicted last July for "crimes against humanity."

As the first international tribunal since Nuremberg hits full stride this month, the South African chief prosecutor, a confidante of President Nelson Mandela, is emerging as the man who made it happen.

In the past year since taking charge, Goldstone has made the tribunal part of the political equation in settling the bloodiest war in Europe since World War II.

But prosecuting Bosnian Serb leaders in an area where American troops may soon be headed - and when Americans are leading sensitive negotiations - makes some US diplomats edgy.

No immunity given for peace

Last week, President Clinton tried to quiet a brewing controversy over whether Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke, in his talks on Bosnia with Serb President Slobodan Milosevic, indirectly signaled that Mr. Karadzic and General Mladic would get immunity from war crimes. "These indictments are not negotiable," Mr. Clinton said in a speech before 8,000 students at the University of Connecticut. "Those accused of war crimes ... must be held accountable."

For his part, Goldstone refuses to allow political developments to sway what he says is the cause of justice.

"Our job is to investigate and indict," he told the Monitor in an interview, "and I will continue to do that. Negotiations are not a factor in our work."

Such statements reflect the South African's dogged efforts, and what colleagues call his "rare" sense of justice. "As long as Goldstone is in that building, the tribunal will continue," says Thomas Warrick, an expert on international law and war crimes. at Pierson, Semmes, and Bemmis, a Washington law firm. "He's shown that he won't be pushed around...."

Both the logistics of the tribunal's investigations into Bosnia and Rwanda, and the historical precedent it represents, are daunting. With the O.J. Simpson trial in mind, American Lawyer magazine called the tribunal "the real trial of the century."

The tribunal is investigating 40,000 to 250,000 deaths in the former Yugoslavia, a region the size of New England. Refugee-witnesses are scattered from Pakistan to the Philippines. Legal scholars say the tribunal also tests whether the 170 nations that signed the 1949 Geneva Conventions will ever enforce that agreement's oft-cited international legal norms. If not in Bosnia and Rwanda, they say, then where?

Goldstone's historic role

A modest, serious man who earned a place in South African history as head of a controversial commission investigating police brutality against blacks, Goldstone now stands on the international stage fully aware of his historic role at The Hague.

He argues that capturing war criminals isn't of primary importance. What matters more, he says, is that "the truth be told, and the story set straight. "Most victims in the criminal-justice system know who did it. So they don't need knowledge. They have that. Victims want what they have gone through to be acknowledged by society. Otherwise, they carry with them tremendous anger and resentment that causes cycles of violence," Goldstone says, as he sits in his office in a quiet Dutch suburb, where he works 12-hour days.

"You can't have real reconciliation without justice," he continues. …