bosnia report
New Series No: 37-38 January - March 2004
The Price of Truth - rewarding war criminals
by Emir Suljagic

During the night of 30 September 1992, the last forty of those who had survived were herded into a truck.  They were driven into the darkness and several hours later shot down and buried.  Their death closed the last chapter in the several-month-long existence of the Sušica camp.  This camp close to Vlasenica had remained up to the autumn of 1992 outside the reach of foreign observers and journalists.  After its closure in September the last surviving group was eliminated, probably on orders from above.


The frail and nearly blind woman led into the courtroom by a court employee was one of hundreds of thousands of Bosnian war victims.  In the summer of 1992 Habiba Hadzic was taken from her house in Vlasenica to Sušica.  In this camp, one of those designated for torture, Habiba became sick with diabetes and had her right hand broken and rendered useless.  Her two sons Enes and Bernes Hadzic remained in the camp long after she herself had been released.  She never saw them again.  Convinced that they were dead, her sole reason for wishing to live was to find the bodies of her two sons. Enes and Bernes Hadzic were in their early thirties when they were pushed into the truck with the last group of prisoners.  No one but the camp commander Dragan Nikolic Jenki knew where their bodies lay.


Mrs Hadzic, not quite sure that Nikolic was in the courtroom, raised her head and, tears streaming down her face, confronted eleven years of her darkest forebodings.  ‘No! They’re not alive! Jenki knows that.  I only ask to know where the graveyard is, so that their mother can give them a respectable burial.  My husband is ill too, cries frequently and hides in the storeroom when I look for him... I ask Dragan to tell me where their graveyard is, so that their mother can bury them.’ 


From Biljana to Jenki

Dragan Nikolic, a self-confessed sadist and killer, pleaded guilty to having committed crimes against humanity, in return for which the prosecution asked for a fifteen-year sentence.  The moral dilemma faced by the prosecutors was considerable.  As one of them told Dani on condition of anonymity, such decisions are not easily made.  Judge Wolfgang Schomburg, presiding over the court, stopped the proceedings and advised Nikolic’s defence team to discuss with their client whether he should answer the question.  Ten minutes later Dragan Nikolic agreed to answer.  Although he had already revealed the site of the mass grave when confessing his guilt, he came clean all over again before the court.  ‘As for her sons, they were taken to Debelo brdo and liquidated up there.’  It was then that Mrs Hadzic began to cry.  ‘Those were the people who had expressed a wish to remain in Vlasenica.  Among them were Enes and Bernes.’  He added: ‘They were largely without documents; so far as I recall, one of her sons was wearing a “Texas” jacket.’  A river of tears flowed in the silence interrupted only by Nikolic’s words. 


Beginning with the guilty plea of Biljana Plavšic, former number two in the regime established by the Bosnian Serbs in 1992, about ten of those indicted by the court in The Hague have confessed.  Through the negotiation process -  ‘plea bargaining’ -  the prosecutors by and large ended up with a wealth of precious information, some of which they had not had before, and the accused ended up with considerably milder sentences.  Plea bargaining, a legal mechanism unknown in continental justice, represents in Anglo-Saxon countries a key instrument designed to reduce the heavy burden of the courts.  According to some studies, in the United States ‘ninety or maybe ninety-five percent of all sentences are based on admission of guilt’, with only the lightest of transgressions being dealt with by trial.  In the majority of cases, the charges that are dropped as a result of plea bargaining carry heavier sentences than those that remain. 


Is this method suitable, however, for a court dealing with some of the worst crimes committed in the twentieth century?  A court that deals with the burning of children in garages or with mass rapes; a court where one individual is tried for forcing two brothers to have sex with each other, another for ordering the murder of more than two hundred people and the dumping of their bodies in a canyon several hundred metres deep?   On the other side of this equation: what is the proper punishment for someone who has ordered the shooting of eight thousand men?  For most of the victims, such a deed demands capital punishment.  Even if such punishment were available to the court, it would mean a return to the barbarism of the 1990s, a punishment that would bring no good to anyone. 


Punishment and Truth

The Hague Tribunal plays another important role which, it seems, is equally and maybe even more important than dispensing justice: the establishment of truth.  ‘My basic duty is prosecuting people responsible for crimes.  If someone comes and says: “I have committed these crimes!”, then I have succeeded.  Establishing the truth is another matter’, says Mark Harmon, a prosecutor responsible for two of the Tribunal’s three longest sentences.  Harmon, who acted as prosecutor in the cases against Radislav Krstic and Tihomir Blaškic, took part in the process of plea bargaining  with Biljana Plavšic, Drazen Erdemovic, Ranko Cešic and recently also Miroslav Deronjic.  What are the criteria for establishing the truth?  Harmon says that Srebrenica is perhaps the example of this.  At the time when Drazen Erdemovic surrendered to the court and, driven by his guilty conscience,  expressed his readiness to confess, the investigators knew almost nothing about the crime in Srebrenica. It was a genocide without bodies. 


When Erdemovic arrived in The Hague, no one knew about the army land in Banjevo where on 16 July 1995 from one to one-and-a-half thousand people were executed between ten in the morning and two in the afternoon.  Erdemovic - insofar as he, as an ordinary soldier, was able to do so - identified the units, men and commanders involved.  He also revealed the massacre in the Hall of Culture at Polica, where in contrast to Banjevo no one survived. 


To prove the crime in Srebrenica beyond reasonable doubt, Harmon says, was not difficult at the time; but Erdemovic’s confession and the subsequent confessions of two officers of the Bosnian Serb army - Momir Nikolic and Dragan Obrenovic - enabled the prosecution to paint the whole picture of the genocide before the court and the broad public.  Nikolic and Obrenovic supplied the prosecution, and also the victims, with vital evidence that will prevent all possible subsequent revision.  Their testimony was of such a nature that no one will be able henceforth to deny the Srebrenica crime. 


Are the fifteen to twenty years which the prosecution demanded for the two enough?  Maybe not.  However, if one takes into account the fact that each of them had identified a series of mass graves, as well as other officers who know where other graves are, hundreds and maybe thousands of victims have found their peace.   To be sure the people who have reached an agreement with the prosecution are no angels.  There were no angels sitting at the meetings where genocide was planned. 


Orders ‘from the top’

Miroslav Deronjic, who in July 1995 was appointed civil commissar for the Srebrenica area  by Radoslav Karadzic, is a typical penitent with arms covered in blood.   After confessing, however, Deronjic went on to implicate his erstwhile chief in the Srebrenica massacre.  Testifying recently during the pre-sentencing discussion in the case of Momir Nikolic, Deronjic told the court that Karadzic had ordered him - at a meeting held in Pale a few days before the fall of the enclave - to carry out the massacre.  ‘Miroslav, kill all of them.  Kill all you possibly can. Do you understand me?’, Karadzic told him.  It was the first time that Karadzic had been linked with the Srebrenica massacre.  For good measure Deronjic revealed also the details of a meeting held in Bratunac on the evening of 13 July, at which Ljubiša Beara told him that he had orders ‘from the top’ to kill all the males in Srebrenica. 


Deronjic, who will testify also against Slobodan Miloševic, revealed only a part of what he knows.  It proved easy to deal with him: charged with committing a terrible crime at the start of the war, on the basis of much evidence and eye-witness testimony, Deronjic faced many decades in prison, perhaps a life sentence.  Faced with the evidence, Deronjic decided to seek a way out: he will spend a good part of his life testifying against the idea which he once served.  The sentences meted out at The Hague are on average between ten and fifteen years, and in fact do not depend much on the prosecutors. 


What, then, are the advantages of plea bargaining?  ‘We get evidence which otherwise we couldn’t get.  We’re able to present the whole truth about an event, so history too gains something from it’, says Harmon.   This is also in the interest of the victims.  Why then do the victims as a rule react so vehemently against such bargaining?  First, because no punishment measures up to what the majority of the Bosnian victims have gone through.  Human justice, indeed, cannot make up for the experience of those who have survived Srebrenica or the Prijedor death camps or the slaughterhouse in Brcko.  It is evident, therefore, that something is missing in the chain linking the prosecutors and the victims in whose name the court was established.  Why?  This is sometimes due to the secrecy of the procedure, since when an agreement between defendant and prosecutor also includes testimony, a good deal of what he or she knows will remain hidden for some time to come. 




Darko Mrdja’s Secret

When Darko Mrdja, charged with a massacre at Koricanske stijene on 12 August 1992, confessed to the crime last summer, prosecution and defence both asked that he be sentenced to twenty years in prison.  The details of the bargain, however, have not been made public.  A prosecutor who was involved in the bargaining says: ‘There is a good reason for that.’  He could not tell whether any such reason would help the families of the people killed at the time.  Most likely it will.  Seida Karabašic, president of Izvor, the organization of the victims of Prijedor, expressed clearly their concerns: ‘I hope that these bargains and guilty pleas will not be at the expense of the families’, she said outside the court.  This gulf which seemingly still exists between the prosecution and the victims is right now the biggest problem in regard to the confessions obtained in this manner.  This is because the victims will not be satisfied with the insincere words of admission pronounced by Biljana Plavšic, or even with Momir Nikolic’s  genuine and almost distressing tears.  The victims will gain from this process that is gaining in momentum only if the confessions allow them to find inner peace.  A named grave is a first step in that direction.    




Those who have repented

1. Biljana Plavšic, deputy president of RS, charged with genocide, crimes against humanity and violation of the laws and rules of war, pleaded guilty to a crime against humanity.  She was sentenced to eleven years in prison.

2. Momir Nikolic, security officer of the Bratunac brigade of the VRS, charged with genocide, crimes against humanity and violation of the laws and rules of war, pleaded guilty to a crime against humanity, in return for which the prosecution asked for fifteen to twenty years in prison.  He was sentenced to 27 years.

3. Dragan Obrenovic, chief of staff of the Zvornik brigade of the VRS, charged with crimes against humanity and violation of the laws and rules of war, pleaded guilty to a crime against humanity.  The prosecution has asked for fifteen to twenty years.  The sentence is awaited.

4. Predrag Banovic, guard at the Keraterm camp, charged with crimes against humanity and violation of the laws and rules of war, pleaded guilty to one count of the indictment.  Sentenced to eight years in prison.

5. Dragan Nikolic, commander of the Sušica camp, charged with crimes against humanity, pleaded guilty to all four counts of the indictment.  Prosecution and defence have asked for a sentence of no more than fifteen years in prison.  To be sentenced.

6. Miroslav Deronjic, head of the state security service in Bratunac, charged with crimes against humanity and violation of the laws and rules of war, pleaded guilty to one count of the indictment.  Prosecution and defence have asked for ten years in prison.  To be sentenced.

7. Miodrag Jokic, vice-admiral of the JNA, charged with violation of the laws and rules of war, pleaded guilty to six counts of the indictment.  The prosecution has asked for no more than ten years.  To be sentenced.

8. Ranko Cešic, policeman from Brcko, charged with crimes against humanity and violation of the laws and rules of war, pleaded guilty to all twelve counts of the indictment.  The prosecution has asked for between 13 and 18 years in prison.  To be sentenced.

9. Darko Mrdja, policeman from Prijedor, charged with crimes against humanity and violation of the laws and rules of war, pleaded guilty to one count of the indictment.  The prosecution has asked for a sentence between 15 and 20 years in prison.

10. Milan Simic, head of the civil government in Bosanski Šamac, charged with crimes against humanity and severe violation of the Geneva convention, pleaded guilty to two cases of torture.  He was sentenced to five years, but recently released without spending a single day in prison.


This article has been translated from Dani (Sarajevo), 5 December2003


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