Bosnian war criminal's strategic repentance

1 Comment
Bosnian War'I ask my brothers, Croats, to forgive us, their Brother Serbs, and I pray for the Serb people to turn to the future ...' – Dražen Erdemovic, 24 January 2004

The only woman convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia has returned to Serbia. Biljana Plavšic, former Bosnian Serb President (1996–8), had spent two thirds of her 11-year sentence in a Swedish prison after being convicted for a single count of crimes against humanity.

As with so many things with the administration of justice, her guilty plea formed part of a bargain, another sign that guilt and punishments are often matters of tactics and basic arithmetic. Charges such as genocide were dropped. She agreed to testify against some of her colleagues, excepting Slobodan Miloševic.

On sentencing, her speech suggested a change of heart. The pro-nationalist victimiser and ideologue had turned into a mourning figure of repentance. 'The knowledge that I am responsible for such human suffering and for soiling the character of my people will always be with me,' she said.

She also insisted, in her 2005 book I Testify, that Radovan Karadžic, himself awaiting trial, and Ratko Mladic, surrender to the UN court. Her argument about Mladic was simple: render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's. Being a 'great' soldier, it was fitting he now sacrifice himself before the people at The Hague.

Her comments for Karadžic were less charitable. 'Nothing surprises me ... he is a man who was never willing to make sacrifices.'

The victims of that particularly savage war will not be so gracious. Their understanding of Swedish penal law and leniency, or how Plavšic passed her time in prison baking at leisure, will be beside the point. Memories of slaughter tend to be elephantine, especially in the Balkans. 'Plavšic is a disgrace and her release is a disgrace,' claimed an indignant Hajra Mulic, who lost her son at the Srebrenica massacre in 1995.

The former Bosnian Muslim president joined the chorus, complaining about the scarcity of justice in the system. Chairman of the Bosnian Presidency, Željko Komšic cancelled his visit to Sweden on Tuesday in protest.

The politics of releasing high profile criminals, notably political ones, offers societies chances to reflect and move on. The President of the Hague Tribunal, Judge Patrick Robinson, had noted 'substantial evidence of rehabilitation'. The Tribunal's first trial — that of Dražen Erdemovic, who had killed dozens of Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica — witnessed a shattering confession of crimes that could not be undone. He had been asked not to testify by Milan Babic, leader of the Krajina Serbs. He refused.

Babic himself was eventually moved to repentance. As he told the Tribunal on in January 2004, 'I can only hope that by expressing the truth, by admitting to my guilt and expressing remorse, [I] can serve as an example to those who still mistakenly believe that such inhumane acts can ever be justified.'

When handled poorly, such cases merely incite anger and the desire for more retribution. Komšic is not one of those who would have liked mercy to be shown to Plavšic. 'That kind of mercy', he said, 'shown to a person who as a Bosnian Serb war leader committed the worst crimes against humanity and participated in planning, creating and implementing the destruction of Muslims, Croats and other non-Serbs in Bosnia, would be a great mistake.'

Might she become a figure of Serbian pro-nationalist sentiment, despite her guilty confessions at sentencing in 2003? Will she herself be safe? No one knows. Serbia's current interests, focused on European integration, will be directed away from this incident. The days of slaughter are now replaced by commercial dictates and institutional debates. The less said about such releases, the better.

This approach would be a mistake, a far cry from various moving statements of contrition, which, even if made by those whose hearts were in the dark house, are essential to the healing of a nation.

Binoy KampmarkBinoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.


Topic tags: Yugoslavia, Radovan Karadzic, Ratko Mladic, Komsic, babic, Binoy Kampmark, Biljana Plavsic



submit a comment

Existing comments

I agree with you Binoy. There is a crying need for a truth and reconciliation process here in Belgrade. However the coalition government would not be able to cope with the impacts, the people are feeling the economic hard times adjusting to the dictates of the IMF, Europe and so on. However there is so much that has been left unsaid, atrocities to be acknowledged on all sides, apologies to be offered and accepted. It's a complicated country but an interesting place to live!
Carol | 30 October 2009


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up