The Babic suicide - unanswered questions
by Janet Anderson and Helen Warrell, The Hague
One of the Yugoslavia tribunal's key insider witnesses, Milan Babić, committed suicide in his cell at the Hague detention unit on 5 March 2006, dealing a blow to prosecutors in future trials in which he was slated to testify, according to tribunal insiders. Babić, the former leader of the rebel Serbs in Croatia's Krajina region, was serving a 13-year sentence after pleading guilty to being a co-perpetrator in persecutions against Croats on political, racial and religious grounds between 1991 and 1992.
As part of a plea agreement, Babić had already testified at a series of trials - including that of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milošević -and was due to appear in court on 6 March again as a prosecution witness. But he was also expected to take the stand in many other trials over the next few years. ‘[Babić] was one of the most critical high-ranking tribunal insider witnesses,’ said Edgar Chen, representative of the Coalition for International Justice at the Tribunal. ‘He's given key evidence across the entire gamut of the Croatia indictments.’
According to tribunal insiders, his suicide was a blow for the prosecution, because he was an ‘excellent’ witness in all the trials he took part in so far. Babić's testimonies were marked by recurring expressions of personal shame and remorse. He told the court at his trial in 2004: ‘Innocent people were persecuted; innocent people were evicted forcibly from their houses; and innocent people were killed..I kept silent..and I became personally responsible for the inhumane treatment of innocent people.’ He presented himself in court as someone who was misled and betrayed by Milošević, once a key ally, and repeatedly expressed regret for the way that Serb political leaders planned to cleanse large swathes of Croatian territory and attach it to Serbia proper in an attempt to build a ‘Greater Serbia’.
Appeal to 'brother Croats'
During the brutal war in Croatia, which began in the summer of 1991, Babić became president of the so-called Republic of Serbian Krajina (RSK). Thousands of non-Serbs were killed and tens of thousands expelled in the conflict. At each trial, he repeated an appeal from his own trial that his ‘brother Croats forgive us their brother Serbs’. In Croatia, his admission of guilt and pleas for forgiveness were treated with angry contempt, while in Serbia he was seen as a traitor in nationalist circles. Indeed, Babić said repeatedly that his cooperation with the prosecutor's office had provoked numerous threats against him and his family.
Babić was due to take the stand again to continue his testimony against Milan Martić, another Croatian Serb leader who eventually ousted him from the RSK presidency. He was reaching the end of his cross-examination by Martić's defence counsel, Predrag Milovančević, who described him as the trial's ‘most important prosecution witness’. This would have been the third week of his testimony.
Babić was expected to return to The Hague to testify in the trial of Franko ‘Frenki’ Simatović, who founded and was the first commander of a special operations unit known as the Red Berets, allegedly responsible for ethnic cleansing in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. He was also due to give evidence against Jovica Stanišić, former head of the Serbian state security service, and Serb ultra-nationalist politician Vojislav Š ešelj.
The former RSK leader first made contact with the tribunal back in 2001, when he found that he had been named in the indictment against Milošević as a co-perpetrator in a ‘joint criminal enterprise’ to remove the non-Serb population of Croatia. In the event of Bosnian Serb army general Ratko Mladić - an alleged ringleader of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in which some 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed - being arrested, Babić would also have testified against him, as another member of the joint criminal enterprise.
In 2002, Babić gave evidence against Milošević, describing a parallel command structure established by Milošević's secret police. He confirmed that events had not been controlled from Knin, the capital of the RSK, but rather by Belgrade. He also testified against former Bosnian Serb parliamentary speaker Momčilo Krajišnik in 2004, but behind closed doors.
Earlier that year, as part of a plea agreement, he pleaded guilty to one count of crimes against humanity - persecution of non-Serbs on political, racial and religious grounds - in return for the prosecutor recommending an 11-year prison sentence. In the end, the trial chamber decided to hand down a 13-year sentence, later confirmed by the appeals chamber. As part of the plea agreement, Babić accepted ‘full responsibility’ for the actions listed in the indictment against him. In the factual statement accompanying his plea, Babić acknowledged that during his time as president of Serb-held Krajina, he had become ‘an ethnic egoist, a person who exclusively wanted to see to the interests of people to which [he] belonged’. He also conceded that he had ‘neglected the interests and suffering of .the Croatian people’.
Few high-ranking leaders have so far confessed to their actions at the tribunal since the first guilty plea in May 1996, when Dražen Erdemović admitted to involvement in the Srebrenica massacre. The biggest breakthrough for the prosecutor's office was when another ethnic Serb - former Bosnian Serb president Biljana Plavšić - pleaded guilty in October 2002. But she did not agree to testify against others. To prevent this situation from recurring, the prosecution changed their strategy so that when Babić submitted his plea, he was required to ‘freely answer’ all questions put to him by the prosecutor's office.
Babić's death is the second case of suicide at the tribunal's Scheveningen detention unit. In June 1998, Slavko Dokmanović, a municipal official charged with having participated in the massacre of some 250 non-Serbs in the Croatian town of Vukovar, was found to have hung himself from his wardrobe door with a tie, just days before his verdict was due to be announced. The tribunal's internal inquiry found that there had been no ‘negligent behaviour’ by Dutch detention staff, who were checking the accused at half-hourly intervals. However, the official report also states that the detainee made two unsuccessful attempts to commit suicide on the evening he died, which were not visible to prison guards. Milošević was under constant suicide watch when he was first transferred to the tribunal. This was gradually relaxed after he announced in October 2001 that he would never kill himself because of his determination ‘ to overthrow this court and this mockery of a trial and its paymasters’.
Between July 2005 and the beginning of February 2006, Babić was held at an undisclosed European jail. He was subsequently kept isolated from other prisoners at the detention unit because of his special circumstances. His star performance in the Martić trial had observers riveted. He repeated accusations that the military and political leadership in Belgrade were orchestrating armed rebellion in Croatia at the beginning of the nineties. ‘Armed forces in Krajina were commanded by two parallel structures of command, and on top of them both were Slobodan Milošević,’ he told the court. Below Milošević, stated Babić, was Stanišić and below him Martić. Babić also described how Belgrade aimed in 1991 to provoke the Croatian police, in order to draw the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) into the emerging conflict, on the side of the Serbs. His testimony is bound to be challenged by Martić's defence lawyers, but legal observers believe that much of it will be allowed to stand because it was already subject to robust
Babić’s lawyer, German advocate Peter Michael Mueller, said that he did not believe that his client had committed suicide because of threats against his family. He told IWPR that Babić was ‘a very intelligent and deliberating man, and was not prone to make sudden decisions’. Media speculation has focused on the theory that the Serb leader was receiving threats against his family who were being kept in hiding. Babić's wife and children were too afraid to attend his Serbian Orthodox funeral, which attracted about 500 mourners in Belgrade on 21 March, and could only express their regret by letter. When asked about ongoing security measures for Babić's family, Mueller said, ‘If they still believed protection was appropriate, then it would continue.’ But he disputes the threats had intensified. ‘There had always been, for many years, a general threat, ever since he testified openly in trial proceedings against Milošević,’ he said. ‘Threats would be the last thing I would expect [as a reason for suicide]. If he was being threatened, his first job would be to contact me, as he had done in the past. We discussed this issue very openly,’ said Mueller, adding that in the weeks leading up to Babić's death he had received no such complaint. But he hit out at security procedures at The Hague, saying he was ‘amazed and stunned’ to hear that Babić had managed to kill himself at the detention facility. Guards checked on him every 30 minutes but did not have him under constant video surveillance.
Attacked from both sides
Less than a week after Babić's suicide, Milošević was also found dead in his cell at the tribunal's Scheveningen prison facility. Milenov, however, told IWPR that the tribunal ‘certainly tends to the security of all the detainees under its care’.
Those who plead guilty at The Hague are in a difficult position. Dubbed traitors by their former colleagues, and reviled by those they have persecuted, they are attacked from every side. Mueller confirmed that Babić had often felt as if he was ‘running against a wall’. ‘Neither the Serb side nor the Croatian side wanted to hear the truth,’ he said. ‘People in Croatia evidently think in a very antagonistic way. The situation was bitter for him, because he had Croatian relatives in his own family. His contact with family members from the former Yugoslavia was reduced to practically zero.’ The Serb media have been far from complimentary. One Belgrade-based daily newspaper ran an article addressed to the former leader: ‘God should make the earth throw you up’ and ‘God may forgive you but Krajina Serbs will not’, the piece stated.
Mueller insists that the tribunal should ensure better protection for those who have pleaded guilty saying, ‘Security matters should get more attention than they have done in the past.’ This, Mueller claims, was the least the tribunal could have done for a key insider witness who was a ‘fountain of information’ and had to be restrained from revealing ever more stories, ‘I always warned him, during tribunal proceedings against him, don't make a big story of yourself, don't mention information which is not of use in your own case.’ But, as Babić's three-week testimony against Martić showed, this was a man driven to spill the details of what he had been involved in. ‘He wanted to promote the truth. he wanted to contribute to reconciliation and peace in the Balkans,’ said Mueller. ‘He did not want lies to be broadcast.’
Janet Anderson is director of IWPR's international justice programme and Helen Warrell is an IWPR reporter in The Hague. This text has been edited from their reports appearing in IWPR'S Tribunal Update No. 443, Part 1, 6 March 2006 and No. 445, 24 March 2006, see www.iwpr.net