The release of Bosnian Serb war criminal Biljana Plavsic for old age and ‘good behavior’ is an embarrassment to international justice, especially with the self admission that her genocidal remorse was staged, Anes Alic comments for ISN Security Watch.
The early release of convicted war criminal Biljana Plavsic and the start of the trial of her former boss and predecessor, Bosnian Serb wartime leader Radovan Karadzic – both events which happened within two days of each other – was an ill-designed move. It further illustrates the international community’s lack of comprehension of ethnic tensions in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Because of the fateful timing of the two events, the wider public seems to believe that Plavsic was released in order to avoid Bosnian Serb outcry ahead of the start of Karadzic’s war crimes trial. It also appears that the international community was attempting to do the reverse for Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats, the victims of the politics of the two, by offering Karadzic up for trial to avoid outrage over the release of Plavsic.
While her release may indeed have been in accordance with international law, many argue that it was not in accordance with justice, and the two do not necessarily meet.
Plavsic succeeded Karadzic as president of Bosnia’s Serb-dominated entity of Republika Srpska in 1996, after he was forced out of office by the international community. Plavsic turned herself in to the Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in early 2001 after she was indicted for genocide and other war crimes when serving as Karadzic’s wartime deputy.
A former biology professor from Sarajevo University, Plavsic was famous during the war for the comments such as “Muslims are a genetic defect of the Serbian body.”
In the early stage of the war, she offered what she claimed was scientific proof that Bosnian Muslims were genetically tainted Serbs who had converted to Islam.
She also defended her purge of non-Serbs as “a natural phenomenon” and not a war crime. Photographs of her kissing Serbian paramilitary commander Zeljko Raznatovic Arkan after his Tigers unit conquered the city of Bijeljina, killing or imprisoning all Bosniaks and Croats there, appeared in all media. In the photo’s background were the bodies of civilians killed in the operation.
Cooking up a plea
Plavsic, now 79, was sentenced in February 2003 to 11 years in prison after admitting to having played a leading role in a campaign of persecution against Bosnian Croats and Bosniaks during the 1992-95 war.
At that time, she was the highest ranking official of the former Yugoslavia to have acknowledged responsibility for atrocities. After her show of remorse, several Bosnian Serb police and military officials, mostly charged for the Srebrenica massacre, pleaded guilty and received shorter sentences.
Plavsic struck a plea agreement with prosecutors in October 2002 in which she “admitted to supporting and contributing to achieving the objective of the permanent removal of ethnic populations by force.”
She had faced eight charges, including two of genocide. All the most serious charges against her were dropped in return for her admission of remorse and guilty plea. She initially pleaded not guilty, but later admitted guilt on one count of crimes against humanity, in exchange for all other charges being dropped and a shortened sentence of 11 years.
She was released three years ahead of her term, due to her age. According to the ICTY, she had expressed remorse and a behavioral report showed she had exhibited good behavior in prison.
“She has participated in the institution’s walks and she also occupies herself by cooking and baking,” read the ICTY’s September recommendation for her early release.
During her trial, she wrote memoirs in which she accused all former Bosnian Serb leaders of organizing the war crimes, calling Karadzic a criminal and a coward.
And, adding the baking and walking to that, western diplomats seemed to believe that the wartime ‘Serbian Iron Lady,’ had experienced a change of heart.
Admission ‘a farce’
But this change of heart was revealed for what it truly was in 2005, when she told Serbian and Swedish media that she had pleaded guilty to war crimes for the sole purpose of winning herself a shorter prison sentence, and that she had lied in her statement of remorse, claiming she could not have proved her innocence. Her confession, she said, was a farce.
“[…] I pleaded guilty to crimes against humanity so I could bargain for the other charges. If I hadn’t, the trial would have lasted three, three and-a-half years. Considering my age that wasn’t an option,” she told Swedish media.
Now, the blame has fallen on Sweden for her early release. ICTY officials say they feel cheated, though they are clearly responsible for the final decision and may indeed have lent too much significance to her walking and baking ‘rehabilitation.’
But what is more worrisome is how Plavsic’s release was celebrated both Serbs in both Bosnia and Serbia. At Belgrade’s airport her support group, which had provided financial, legal and lobbying resources during her time in the Hague, as well as a number of citizens, waited anxiously to greet her.
The first to welcome her was Republika Srpska Prime Minister Milorad Dodik, who transported her to her apartment in Belgrade under police escort.
It seems that her betrayal of Karadzic as a coward and a criminal was overlooked, and instead she is seen as a hero who managed to cleverly deceive the international community.
The Serbian government refrained from officially welcoming her to Belgrade, knowing full well this would harm its reputation at a time when Serbia’s EU membership is at stake and it is under growing pressure to find and arrest Bosnian Serb wartime general Ratko Mladic, also wanted by the ICTY.
Of course, Bosniaks, Croats and Kosovo Albanians have also similarly celebrated the release of their own ‘hero-war criminals,’ so this ugly phenomenon cannot be placed at the feet of Serbs alone.
As for Karadzic, now 64, it is unlikely at the point that walking and baking ‘rehabilitation’ will earn him any good behavior points. He is likely to spend the rest of his life in prison, and as such is prepared to give the world an eventful farewell in the form of a stunning political show.