Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

ANALYSIS: Confession Rewarded

Keraterm guards receive reduced sentences after admitting to some responsibility for crimes committed in the camp.
By Mirko Klarin

Former prisoners and relatives of those who were killed or went missing at the Bosnian Serb detention centre at Keraterm, near Prijedor, in north-west Bosnia, expressed outrage last week over the low sentences the court imposed on three camp guards.


Judge Patrick Robinson jailed the guard shift commanders Dragan Kolundzija, Damir Dosen and Dusko Sikirica for three, five and 15 years respectively on November 13, concluding a 52-day trial.


The relatives' anger was heightened by the fact that two weeks earlier, three men accused of similar crimes at the nearby Omarska camp, Dragoljub Prcac, Milojica Kos and Miroslav Kvocka, received jail terms of only five, six and seven years.


But there was an important difference between the two cases. Unlike the trio from Omarska, who maintained their innocence to the end, the Keraterm guards admitted some responsibility for crimes in their camp.


While the prosecution in the Omarska case failed to establish the accused men's command responsibility, the three accused over Keraterm accepted the evidence that they had enjoyed positions of authority.


They confessed killings, beatings, torture, rape, sexual assaults, harassment, humiliation and psychological abuse of detained Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats all took place at Keraterm in the summer of 1992.


Such confessions have been very rare in The Hague courtrooms, despite a generous offer made more than five years ago by the tribunal prosecutors. In 1996, during a pre-sentencing hearing in the Drazen Erdemovic case, the prosecutor had said that a defendant who pleads guilty and cooperates with the prosecution can count on a substantial sentence "discount" of between 50 to 75 per cent.


After Erdemovic admitted taking part in the killing of over 1,000 Muslim men from Srebrenica in July 1995, his probable life sentence was cut to 10 years, and subsequently cut again to five years after an appeal.


But six years on, he remained the only defendant who had admitted guilt prior to his initial appearance. He told his story about the killing on the Branjevo farm near Srebrenica to the Western media, virtually writing his own indictment.


Five other indictees - Goran Jelisic and Stevan Todorovic, and the three accused over Keraterm - changed their not-guilty pleas before or during their trials, after being confronted with the weight of evidence against them.


In advance of his 1998 trial over crimes committed in May 1992 in Brcko, north-east Bosnia, Jelisic admitted guilt for 12 of several dozen killings which the prosecution said he committed. The change of plea brought him no bonus as he was jailed for 40 years, a figure confirmed after appeal.


In December 2000, while the Bosanski Samac case was still in its pre-trial stage, Todorovic pleaded guilty to persecution on political, racial or religious grounds on the basis of a plea agreement between the defence and the prosecution. He also pledged to testify against his former co-accused in the case. After the two sides recommended a seven-to-12 year sentence, he was jailed for 10 years.


The Keraterm three changed their pleas at the close of the trial. They also made plea agreements with the prosecution, admitting their share of the responsibility for inhuman conditions at Keraterm, which, being persecution on political, racial or religious grounds, constitutes a crime against humanity. Sikirica alone admitted killing a man personally.


Justifying the sentences, Judge Robinson reminded the court that guilty pleas eased the tribunal's work in several crucial ways. Confessions before the start of the trial cuts out the need for a lengthy investigation and trial.


Although this did not apply to the Keraterm troika, the judge said that "a benefit [still] accrues to the trial chamber because a guilty plea contributes directly to one of the fundamental objectives of the tribunal; namely its truth-finding-function.


"While an accused who pleads guilty prior to the commencement of his trial will usually receive full credit for that plea, one who enters a plea of guilt any time thereafter will still stand to receive some credit, though not as much."


The judge gave Kolundzija - a guard shift leader at the camp - the smallest term because he changed his plea before the start of his defence and in deference to "ample evidence of Kolundzija's efforts to ease the harsh conditions in the Keraterm camp". As he has already been detained for more than two years, he will leave The Hague detention unit within months.


Dosen got a slightly longer sentence because although the court accepted that he also tried to "ameliorate the terrible conditions that prevailed in Keraterm camp", he had changed his plea later on.


Sikirica's 15 years reflected his senior position as head of security at Keraterm and the fact that he admitted shooting dead a detainee. The judge, nevertheless, insisted he would have received a "much longer sentence" if he had stuck to his not-guilty plea.


The guilty pleas of the Keraterm trio, though late in the day, will result in the court making additional savings. Since the sentences fall within the band limits proposed by the defence and prosecution, there will be no appeal. As a result, the Keraterm trial will be the tribunal's first case not to got to the appeals chamber.


The court will also save time during at least six future trials, involving crimes committed in Keraterm and other Prijedor camps in 1992.


The trio's admission of guilt means that the inhuman conditions at Keraterm, qualified as a crime against humanity, have been established as an "adjudicated fact" that does not have to be exhaustively proved in future.


This has ramifications for two other men accused over Keraterm, brothers Predrag and Nenad Banovic, who pleaded not guilty last week, as well as for Dragan Fustar and Dusan Knezevic, accused over Keraterm and still at large.


Another trial to feel an impact will be that of Milomir Stakic, former president of the Serbian Crisis Headquarters of Prijedor, who set up and ran the camps. His trial should start in February 2002.


The inhuman conditions at Keraterm and other notorious Prijedor camps will also be a part of the prosecutor's case in future trials of Radoslav Brdjanin and General Momir Talic (indicted for genocide in the Bosanska Krajina region), and of Momcilo Krajisnik and Biljana Plavsic, who - like Radovan Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic - have been indicted for genocide in Bosnia. Crimes committed at the Keraterm, Omarska and Trnopolje camps are cited in all of these indictments.


Finally, Keraterm and other Bosnian camps will certainly play a part in the Bosnian indictment lodged against the most important indictee of them all, namely the former Yugoslav president, Slobodan Milosevic.


Mirko Klarin is IWPR senior editor for the war crimes tribunal and editor-in-chief of SENSE News Agency.