- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 30, 2002

The Bush administration said yesterday that it is urging the United Nations to crack down harder on kickbacks paid to war-crimes suspects by their U.N.-financed defense lawyers at international tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.
The Washington Times reported Tuesday that the practice was widespread at the U.N.-sponsored International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague, where defendants routinely ask for as much as 30 percent of the fees of their court-appointed attorneys and threaten to dismiss lawyers who refuse to cooperate.
An internal U.N. investigation in March said the tribunals have tried to curb so-called "fee-splitting," but tribunal officials conceded that the arrangement "is not an easy practice to eradicate."
A State Department official, speaking on background, said yesterday that the U.S. government has urged the Rwanda and Yugoslavia panels to beef up the number of auditors and to strengthen the code of conduct for defense attorneys.
"We urge both tribunals to implement these steps as soon as possible, including the adoption of sanctions that may be applied to those who engage in fee-splitting, and to undertake more vigorous efforts to identify and bar lawyers engaged in fee-splitting," the official said.
The State Department official said the U.S. government, which pays 23 percent of the regular U.N. budget, "strongly" supported internal U.N. efforts to clean house.
The Washington Times reported that the Hague tribunal has become a kind of illicit welfare system for lawyers, defendants, and their relatives and friends back home.
In all but a few cases former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is defending himself the tribunals pay the defendants' lawyers a tax-exempt salary of up to $200,000 a year. Defense lawyers report that their clients threaten to dismiss them if they do not share some of the fee.
In one case, the lawyer defending Zoran Zigic, a Serb accused of war crimes at the notorious Omarska detention camp in Bosnia-Herzegovina, said Mr. Zigic is building a house with the money he extorted from two of his court-appointed lawyers.
Zika Rakonjac, author of a forthcoming book on the shady financial practices at the Hague tribunal, said in an interview that some 1,000 people, including family members of those on trial, have benefited from the money.
The author said the usual arrangement in Yugoslavia calls for defense lawyers to kick back 10 percent to 15 percent of their annual salary to their clients, as much as $30,000 a year, and sometimes the contribution is even higher.
"Everyone wants their cut Serbs, Croats and Muslims alike," Mr. Rakonjac said in an interview.
Defense attorneys at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, based in Arusha, Tanzania, receive up to $110 an hour and can bill up to 175 hours a month. Defendants are allowed a team of three defense attorneys, selected from a pool of 200 lawyers kept by the tribunal.
As in Yugoslavia, the majority of defendants in Rwanda plead poverty and have their legal expenses paid by the court. Investigators found that many defendants in Rwanda were choosing only counsel who agreed beforehand to kick back some of their pay.
Some of the defense lawyers practicing at the Hague have said the charges are overblown.
They say they have occasionally financed family visits or other small favors for their clients but have never been asked to make any cash payout. The Netherlands has exempted the defense fees from local taxation.
The United Nations declined to comment yesterday on the latest charges but referred a reporter to two internal studies, one issued in February 2001 and one in March, that found financial abuses continue to plague both the Yugoslav and Rwandan tribunals.
In February, lawyers working for Joseph Nzirorera, a former Rwandan politician accused of participating in the 1994 ethnic genocide, were fired after investigators uncovered evidence of fee-splitting with their client.
The March report, issued by the U.N. Office of Internal Oversight Services, found that both tribunals had taken "proactive steps" since the first report issued 13 months earlier. Among them: tighter screening of the pool of defense lawyers; changes to the code of conduct; and new limits on the number and value of gifts detainees can accept at the U.N. holding facilities.
Although the Bush administration has refused to sign on to the International Criminal Court, the United States remains a strong supporter of the more limited panels looking into Rwanda and Yugoslavia.
Pierre-Richard Prosper, the State Department's ambassador-at-large for war-crimes issues, told a House hearing in February that the United States continued to support the panels while acknowledging that "there have been problems that challenge the integrity of the process."
Mr. Prosper said the United States was pushing for the two tribunals to finish their work by 2008 at the latest.
Special correspondent Milorad Ivanovic contributed to this report from Belgrade, Yugoslavia.


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