A former president of the Serbian entity in Bosnia, Biljana Plavsic, has pleaded not guilty to nine charges brought against her by the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague. Plavsic is the highest-ranking Bosnian Serb official to appear at the tribunal, and her testimony could provide key evidence in finding and convicting other suspected war criminals, including her former boss Radovan Karadzic and former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.
Prague, 11 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Former Bosnian Serb President Biljana Plavsic today pleaded "not guilty" to nine charges brought against her by the International War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague.
Plavsic turned herself in to the tribunal yesterday after the court released an indictment alleging that in 1991 and 1992 she helped to plan a campaign of genocide and ethnic cleansing to purge non-Serbs from parts of Bosnia.
Plavsic told the court today she believes she is innocent and wants to clear her name.
"Good morning your honors. I have received the indictment yesterday and I understood it fully and I plead not guilty on all counts."
The 70-year-old Plavsic was a deputy to former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic during the Bosnian war from 1992 to 1995. She later broke ranks with hardline nationalists, and, as president of the Bosnian Serb entity from 1996-1998 was considered a moderate among officials there.
Plavsic's attorney, Krstan Simic, tells RFE/RL that Plavsic voluntarily surrendered to The Hague in order to defend herself against the charges. Simic says Plavsic has not tried to make any deal with the tribunal's prosecutor to lessen her sentence in exchange for testimony against other high-ranking officials:
"With full responsibility, I can confirm that Mrs. Plavsic decided of her own free will to surrender and without any conditions. There were no talks about any deal between Mrs. Plavsic and prosecutor office representatives."
Florence Hartmann, the spokeswoman for chief prosecutor Carla del Ponte, says there were no talks about dropping some charges in exchange for testimony and a guilty plea -- a process known as plea bargaining. Hartmann and Simic both say all talks between Plavsic and tribunal officials before today focused on details of her surrender.
"There were no negotiations and no deal because there is no 'plea bargaining' at the tribunal. The statutes (of the tribunal) do not allow any plea bargaining. It is up to the chamber to decide at the end. That's why we don't have any plea bargaining at the tribunal."
Nevertheless, tribunal judges in the past have offered more lenient sentences to convicted suspects because of their cooperation. The most notable example is a case linked to the 1995 Srebrenica massacres, in which Bosnian Croat Drazen Erdemovic received a relatively light five-year sentence after pleading guilty to charges of murder and crimes against humanity. Erdemovic was serving in the Bosnian Serb army at the time of the massacres.
It remains to be seen whether Plavsic's testimony will implicate others. But Hartmann tells RFE/RL that Plavsic's testimony could be vital in other pending cases.
"It's very important for the tribunal that Biljana Plavsic surrendered voluntarily. We have higher and higher indicted officials who are coming to The Hague. Her testimony or her cooperation could be very useful for all the cases related to the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina."
Hartmann says Plavsic, by voluntarily turning herself in, may set an example to other indicted suspects such as Karadzic and Bosnian Serb military leader General Ratko Mladic:
"The prosecutor has called upon Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic to do the same as Biljana Plavsic did -- which means to surrender voluntarily. We are still expecting Karadzic, and we expect him to do the same as Biljana Plavsic."
Correspondents say Plavsic may be able to provide testimony linking former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic to the Bosnian genocide because -- as Karadzic's deputy during the war -- she was present at important meetings of the Bosnian Serb leadership.
But Plavsic, a year ago in an interview with RFE/RL, denied she was present at key meetings:
"I have never attended these internal party meetings. They only let me know what I had to do as a member of the Bosnian presidency and of what was agreed at these internal party meetings."
Plavsic also said she had no knowledge of the existence of detention camps for non-Serbs in Bosnia until after she was confronted with evidence by a French academic expert on the matter.
Del Ponte has said she will seek to join Plavsic's indictment together with that of another senior Bosnian Serb political figure, Momcilo Krajisnik, because the facts alleged in both cases are nearly the same.
Krajisnik was arrested last year by French peacekeepers in Bosnia and is expected to go on trial later this year.
(Mensur Camo of the South Slavic Service contributed to this report.)