Profile: Carla del Ponte - the Avenging Angel

Article excerpt

Nemesis must have taken many forms in the dark and tortured mind of Slobodan Milosevic, during the long decade of disaster he inflicted upon his country. A Nato bomb perhaps, striking one of his several secret hideaways during the Kosovo war; maybe an assassin's bullet, fired by an aggrieved nationalist or a hitman dispatched by a Belgrade underworld faction to settle a financial score with the corrupt Milosevic family. And finally, as his power was being swept away on the streets of Belgrade last autumn, he must have had visions of his own Serbian people taking a belated physical vengeance on the leader who had held them in such ruinous thrall.

Never, though, until the endgame approached, can he have imagined that the avenging angel would be an international civil servant and a woman - and to boot a woman from a country famously fond of the quiet life and of a documented inclination to turning a blind eye to unpleasant events around it. But has there ever been a person who so defies the stereotype of her nation as Carla Del Ponte?

Admittedly, Martina Hingis apart, there are not many contenders for the distinction. But this chain-smoking, firebrand lawyer and defender of the world's oppressed, as small in stature as she is relentless in the pursuit of justice, is surely Switzerland's most prominent citizen of the age. Since 15 September 1999 she has been chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

With the consignment of Milosevic to The Hague court, these are heady days indeed for the notion of international justice. Never before has a former head of government been arrested and arraigned for alleged crimes committed while he was in office. For this, no small part of the credit belongs to Del Ponte. True, it was the prospect of desperately needed financial aid that ultimately forced Belgrade to hand over its most infamous resident. She, of course, has no power to physically enforce her orders. But how many divisions had the Pope? Del Ponte helped create the moral climate in which the unthinkable became first possible, and then one of those pieces of news which upon first hearing simply beggars belief.

From the very moment she was selected for the job by the UN Security Council, Del Ponte insisted Milosevic would not escape justice. Few believed her - but they did not know her. For the hallmark of her career, and the driving force of her personality is an unswerving, undeflectable, all- consuming determination to achieve what she sets out to do. Piergiorgio Mordasini, cantonal prosecutor in Italian-speaking Lugano where Del Ponte was born in 1947, and later her colleague there, once put it this way: "When she has a goal she just charges straight ahead like a battle tank, and to hell with the obstacles." With Del Ponte, what you see is what you get - and you are vouchsafed absolutely nothing else. There is a failed marriage somewhere along the way, a son of whom little is known. She dresses elegantly, as Italians do, with a taste for smart accessories like Christian Dior pens and diaries. But this is a woman devoured not by fashion but by her calling.

After studying law in Bern and Geneva and then in Britain, Del Ponte took a master's degree in law and entered a private law practice in Lugano before branching out on her own. In 1981 came the change which mattered, when she crossed from private law to servant of the state. First as an investigating magistrate, then as public prosecutor she delved into some of Europe's dirtiest business. Combining Swiss banking secrecy, close proximity to Italy, and a most agreeable Italianate micro-climate, Lugano was a safe haven of choice for Mafia money and for dubious Italian financiers by the dozen.

Rapidly Del Ponte made a name as a hard-charging prosecutor, adroit at using press leaks to further her cause. Money laundering and its upstream industries of drug trafficking, racketeering and fraud became her stock in trade. …