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Bosnian war criminal's strategic repentance

  • 30 October 2009
'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