bosnia report
New Series No:32-34 December - July 2003
War crimes confession by woman of 72 makes history
by Ed Vulliamy

Legal history will be made tomorrow when a 72-year-old woman - a self-confessed perpetrator of horrifying war crimes in Bosnia - will be sentenced by a tribunal in The Hague. Former Bosnian Serb President Biljana Plavšić faces judgment and is expected to explain her unprecedented decision to confess a leading role in the carnage. By accepting what a statement calls her 'responsibility and remorse fully and unconditionally', Plavšić will become the first political or military leader at any international court from Nuremberg onwards to do so.

But Plavšić is expected to make more than legal history: she is also due to make the first overture by someone of her stature and authority to the victims of her crimes, offering reconciliation in pursuit of a bitter reckoning with the truth of what happened in the country she and her colleagues helped to ravage.

Plavšić was a member of the Bosnian Serb collective presidency which sat between May and December in 1992, unleashing a hurricane of violence against Muslim and Croat civilians, including mass killings and deportations, and the establishment of camps. The presidency - expanded from three to five people, including the fugitive Radovan Karadžić who later assumed a leadership role - was the high command of the Bosnian Serb state and its military machine.

In her own plea agreement, Plavšić admits her part in a 'widespread and systematic attack directed against a civilian population'. The crimes to which she pleads guilty come in the section of an indictment entitled 'Persecutions'; the document also accuses her co-President, Momčilo Krajišnik, currently facing trial. The section encompasses mass detentions and killings in the camps, a range of ethnic persecutions, enforced deportation of non-Serbs, plunder, desecration of mosques and 'forced labour, including digging graves and trenches, and other forms of forced labour on front lines'. A long schedule accompanying the indictment details a directory of further crimes of which Plavšić may not have been individually aware but for which, because of her position and with a legality that echoes the Nuremberg trials, she accepts ultimate responsibility.

The indictment accuses Plavšić of taking part in a 'joint criminal enterprise', and there are clear ramifications in this week's hearing, expected to last three days, for the rest of the Bosnian Serb leadership, both in captivity and fugitive. Although Plavšić says her acknowledgement of guilt 'is individual and personal', no one is under any illusion that she ordered the crimes alone. And indeed,

Plavšić - in a statement expected to form the basis for her appearance in court - appealed to 'others, especially leaders, on any side of the conflict, to examine themselves and their own conduct'. She is thought to be referring to various specific events, including massacres in camps at Omarska and Keraterm.

The wider implications of the case are far-reaching: her admission of guilt is the first crack in what has been a stonewall denial of what happened in Bosnia, and of any responsibility, by defendants in The Hague and across Serbian society in general. There is speculation over what Plavšić's motives are, with accusations from some Bosnian Serb quarters that, faced with an overwhelming case against herself, she cut some kind of deal to secure leniency. Her leading attorney, Robert Pavich, stresses that 'there is no agreement, nor have there been any discussions between Mrs Plavšić and the Office of the Prosecutor regarding sentencing'. Indications are that Plavšić's deep Christian faith may have played a major role in her decision.

While the defence is expected to argue for leniency based on the boldness of Plavšić's move, the court will wait to hear whether prosecutors will push for a life sentence, or take her exceptional stance into account. The court heard stories like that of Mehmed Alić, who told his son Enver of his other son's death through a partition, when they found themselves inmates together at Omarska. Alić was then forced by his Serbian guards to go and fetch Enver and dispatch him into the daily rounds of torture, beating and killing.

This report appeared in The Observer (London), 15 December 2002


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