Holocaust scholar testifies against former Serb president

Tuesday, December 17, 2002

THE HAGUE, Netherlands -- Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace laureate who survived the Nazi death camps, urged a strong punishment for former Bosnian Serb leader Biljana Plavsic, telling a U.N. tribunal the sentence it imposes for her war crimes will set a standard for centuries.

Wiesel, testifying at a sentencing hearing by the U.N. war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, said the remorse Plavsic has expressed must be balanced against the suffering of hundreds of thousands of victims in Bosnia.

"If all the pain and suffering of all the victims were to be placed on one set of scales, how many years of prison would it take on the other to achieve justice?" he asked the three-judge panel.

'Iron lady'

Plavsic, a wartime leader of the Bosnian Serbs known as the "iron lady," pleaded guilty to the persecution of Muslims and Croats during the 1992-95 Bosnian war. In exchange, prosecutors dropped seven other war crimes charges, including two counts of genocide.

She was indicted for planning the purge of non-Serbs from Serb-dominated areas of Bosnia along with her friend Radovan Karadzic, who is now the tribunal's most-wanted fugitive.

Plavsic broke with Karadzic after the war and, as president of the Serb region of Bosnia, became a key figure in implementing the 1995 Dayton peace agreement that ended the bloodiest conflict in Europe since World War II.

But Wiesel, speaking by live video link from Paris, told the court, "Nothing can justify a crime against humanity."

Wiesel told the judges their decision would "reverberate across national and ethnic borders ... (and) be studied and remembered far beyond frontiers and far across the centuries." He did not make a specific recommendation of a sentence.

Plavsic, 72, listened intently to Wiesel from the dock, with her head high, her lips pursed, and her jaw firmly set.

Also scheduled to testify in the three-day hearing are former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright -- who became friends with Plavsic while touring the region -- and Alex Boraine, former vice chairman of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Wiesel, a U.S. citizen who grew up in Romania, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986.

Plavsic, the only woman among more than 100 men indicted by the tribunal, faces possible life imprisonment. The U.N. tribunal does not issue death sentences.

In changing her plea in October, she acknowledged responsibility for the crimes listed in the indictment, including "forced transfer or deportation, unlawful detention and killing, cruel and inhumane treatment and inhumane conditions in detention facilities, destruction of cultural and sacred objects, plunder, wanton destruction, forced labor and use of human shields."

At the time, Plavsic "fully and unconditionally" expressed remorse in a written statement and said she hoped it would "offer some consolation to the innocent victims -- Muslim, Croat and Serb."

In an interview published Sunday in Belgrade, she denied she had struck a deal with prosecutors to receive a reduced sentence in exchange for her guilty plea and denied she had agreed to testify against former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, the tribunal's highest ranking defendant. Milosevic is being tried separately on war crimes charges in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo.

"What's a 10-year sentence to me? It is the same as a life in prison," she told a reporter for Politika during her flight from Belgrade to The Hague on Saturday. "My only condition was that I don't testify in other cases."

U.N. chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte told the court in opening remarks that Plavsic's admission of guilt was an "important step" toward establishing the truth about atrocities committed by Serb forces in a war where over 200,000 Bosnians died.

However, Del Ponte said that in deciding Plavsic's sentence, judges must weigh her crimes first, which were of the "utmost gravity."

Plavsic gave herself up immediately after her secret indictment was unsealed in January 2001. For nine months, she was kept in a special wing of the U.N. detention unit separate from male detainees.

She was then released under her own recognizance and allowed to await her trial at home. Last October, she was allowed to change her plea by video linkup from Belgrade.

Sentences have ranged from 5 years to 40 years in other cases at the tribunal where suspects have pleaded guilty.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: