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Bosnia: Reactions Vary To Plavsic Sentence

  • Jolyon Naegele

Former Bosnian Serb leader Biljana Plavsic was sentenced to 11 years in prison yesterday by the United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague. Plavsic is the most senior political figure to date to be convicted by the tribunal and the only woman among some 80 indicted suspects. RFE/RL looks at the verdict and reaction to it in Bosnia and Serbia.

Prague, 28 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The sentence pronounced yesterday by The Hague war crimes tribunal against former Bosnian Serb leader Biljana Plavsic was harsher than many expected but not harsh enough in the view of some of the victims of Serbian ethnic cleansing in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Chief Judge Richard May delivered a lengthy explanation of the tribunal's considerations in sentencing Plavsic, weighing her criminal acts against her expressions of remorse. But in the end, May sentenced her to 11 years in prison, a longer term than many had expected for the 72-year-old former biology professor.

"Undue leniency would be misplaced," Judge May said. "No sentence which the trial chamber passes can fully reflect the horror of what occurred or the terrible impact on thousands of victims."

May said the court viewed Plavsic's involvement in ethnic cleansing as a crime of what he called the "utmost gravity," which resulted in the "deaths of thousands and the expulsion of thousands more in circumstances of great brutality."

"The Bosnian Serb leadership, including Mrs. Plavsic, ignored the allegations of crimes committed by their forces. Mrs. Plavsic disregarded reports of widespread ethnic cleansing and publicly rationalized and justified it," May said.

The prosecution had asked for a 15-to-25-year sentence, but May noted that Plavsic had shown remorse, had "undertaken unprecedented steps to mitigate the crime against humanity for which she is responsible," and "was instrumental in ensuring that the Dayton peace agreement was accepted and implemented in Republika Srpska."

May said, "She made a considerable contribution to peace in the region." May noted that at 72 years of age, Plavsic can expect to live another eight years but that a sentence beyond that could be considered to be a life sentence.

Judge May said the 245 days Plavsic has already spent in prison will be deducted from the sentence. Plavsic changed her plea to guilty last October in exchange for the charge of genocide being dropped from the indictment.

Reaction in Bosnia and Serbia was generally negative, but for different reasons.

Kada Hotic is a representative of the Mothers of Srebrenica, which represents the women of Srebrenica and surrounding communities in eastern Bosnia who lost more than 7,000 of their men and boys in an organized massacre by Bosnian Serb forces in 1995. "All those lives and such a short sentence," she said. "I don't understand what kind of court this is. The attitude of the prosecutors and judges at The Hague was shameful. You'd get a harsher sentence for destroying a chicken farm. This is a disgrace. This is yet another humiliation. This can't be tolerated any longer. Those who are missing do not let one forgive. I'll never see my son Halalti again, nor my brother or husband."

In a similar vein, the wartime vice president of the Bosniaks, Ejup Ganic, described the 11-year sentence as "a small punishment for the size of the crimes she committed."

The Bosniak member of the Bosnian Presidency, Sulejman Tihic, remarked that the sentencing of Plavsic shows that "in Bosnia, aggression and genocide have prevailed."

Bosnian Serbs, on the other hand, tend to find it too harsh.

Plavsic's successor as prime minister of the Bosnian Serb entity, Milorad Dodik, called the sentence unjust. "This verdict is, in my view, depressing," he said. "I think international justice was unjust toward Biljana Plavsic."

He said the sentence will likely deter others whom the tribunal has indicted for war crimes and are still at large, such as Radovan Karadzic and general Ratko Mladic, from turning themselves in and pleading guilty.

The chairman of Plavsic's own party, the Serbian People's League, Branislav Lolic, said the verdict offered no surprises. "This is the outcome that we expected," he said. "I see that she was viewed in the broader context [of] some event in the future [for which] this could serve as a precedent. And from the point of view of Serbian national interests, it was not a good outcome."

Lolic said he sees the importance "of individual responsibility" but is "not sure it will remain at the individual level."

Bosnia-Herzegovina's foreign minister, Mladen Ivanic, a Serb, said Plavsic was convicted as an individual and that the verdict should not have any influence on the Bosnian Serb entity overall. "It can have an impact on individual political parties. I think it could put pressure on [Karadzic's] SDS [Bosnian-Serb Democratic Party], though no more than what has been the case before now," Ivanic said.

Christopher Bennett, a Brussels-based political analyst and author of a book on the breakup of Yugoslavia, thinks the tribunal's sentencing of Plavsic is important. "I think this is terribly significant," he said. "Above all, I have to say that we believe Biljana Plavsic is certainly a courageous person, but as far as guilt is concerned, she admitted it, and that will be a great argument in sentencing other people accused of war crimes. I think later, when the history books are written, it will be viewed as significant," Bennett said.

For some Serbs in Belgrade, the verdict was an opportunity to repeat the view promoted by another accused war criminal, former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, that what happened in Bosnia between 1992 and 1995 was not Yugoslavia's doing but was an exclusively Bosnian matter.

Belgrade University law professor Milan Paunovic said: "The genocide occurred in Srebrenica [in Bosnia], and The Hague tribunal is assessing that genocide happened only around Srebrenica. So it is very difficult to make the connection with Yugoslavia and its responsibility for the massacre."

Belgrade sociologist Srdjan Bogosavljevic said that the Plavsic case has done little to change the way people in Serbia perceive the tribunal and the issue of war crimes in general. "For over two years, more than 60 percent of the people have been saying the [tribunal's trials] are a threat to Serbia. Everything that happened [at The Hague tribunal] is perceived and judged within the framework of this system, and so the trial of Biljana Plavsic is viewed naively -- without good intentions -- instead of being an opportunity to clarify the situation," Bogosavljevic said.

Many say the sentence could dissuade other indicted suspects from turning themselves in.

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