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

Babic Expresses Remorse

Former Croatian Serb leader says he’s sorry for persecuting Croats.
By Karen Meirik

Milan Babic, former leader of the breakaway republic Kninska Krajina, this week dramatically pleaded guilty to war crimes and appealed to his fellow suspects to come forward and do the same.


At the Hague tribunal on January 27, Babic acknowledged that he had persecuted Croats in the territory under his control, and said that he believed only the truth could help to heal the wounds of the past.


“I hope my remorse will make it easier for others to express their guilt,” the 54-year-old onetime dentist told the court.


Under his leadership of the so-called Serbian Republic of Krajina, RSK, virtually the entire non-Serb population was deported or killed.


“I feel a deep sense of shame and remorse that I allowed myself to take part in the killing of innocent people,” he continued, his hands held in a prayer position. “After I learned what had happened I kept silent. I stayed in my office and became personally responsible.”


His contrite address to the court stands in sharp contrast with the inflammatory speeches Babic is reported to have given in 1991, which created an atmosphere of fear and hatred among Serbs in Croatia.


Babic first appearance in The Hague was in November 2002, as protected witness C-061, in the trial of former Serb leader Sloboban Milosevic. After his testimony, his identity was unmasked by the Serbian media, prompting him to go public.


Tribunal officials say that Babic was aware that he was a potential indictee at the time he gave testimony against Milosevic.


“He testified knowing that he would probably be indicted, and he had his lawyer assisting him the whole time,” tribunal spokeswoman Florence Hartmann confirmed.


On November 17, 2003, about a year after he first appeared as a witness against Milosevic, Babic was indicted, accused of being a member of a joint criminal enterprise that included Milosevic, the infamous Croatian Serb police commander Milan Martic, Serbian paramilitary leader Vojislav Seselj and Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic, among others.


As part of this joint criminal enterprise, the indictment alleges that Babic was responsible for the murder of some 200 Croat civilians, and the mistreatment of thousands more in Krajina, as well as the destruction of villages, schools and religious buildings between August 1991 and June 1992.


He cooperated with the prosecution, pleading guilty to one count of aiding and abetting persecution. In exchange for an acknowledgement of that guilt, prosecutors agreed to drop the charges of individual criminal responsibility for persecution and recommended a sentence of 11 years imprisonment rather than the maximum possible sentence of life.


In a move that added to the controversy surrounding the use of plea agreements at the tribunal, the judges overseeing his case refused on January 12 to accept the plea on the grounds that it let Babic off too easily, arguing that the defendant appeared to have done more than “aid and abet” persecution.


The prosecution then negotiated a new plea agreement, in which Babic pleaded guilty to the graver charges of being a co-perpetrator in persecutions.


Rather than accept the revised plea when it was presented to them on January 27, the trial chamber announced that it would need some extra time to evaluate it and asked both the defence and prosecution for additional information.


In particular, the judges wanted to know more about the speeches Babic gave at the beginning of the war, and what role they played in whipping up ethnic tension in Krajina.


Finally, on January 28, the judges accepted the plea agreement.


Although the indictment against Babic alleged that he and Milosevic were partners in a joint criminal enterprise, in fact, the two politicians grew to despise one another during the time covered by the indictment.


Long before Croatia seceded from the former Yugoslavia, Babic had sought support from Milosevic in protecting the Serb population of Krajina.


The Serb leader promised him the protection of the Yugoslav Army, JNA, forces.


But by late 1991, the two had fallen out with one another.


Milosevic wanted to accept an internationally-brokered peace agreement that involved UN troops and would have forced the JNA’s withdrawal from territory Babic controlled.


Babic felt betrayed by Milosevic’s acceptance of this plan, deepening the rift between them.


During the Milosevic trial, the prosecution’s case included some telephone intercepts where the former Serb leader voiced his contempt for Babic in conversation with high ranking Bosnian Serb figures.


In one conversation intercepted on October 8, 1991, Milosevic complained to the then Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic about Babic’s refusal to visit an international meeting in The Hague.


Karadzic repeatedly called Babic “crazy” and a “coward”, adding, “He can’t fool me, I’m a psychiatrist.”


Milosevic is heard to respond, “This guy thinks the whole of Europe should listen to him. I’m telling you all the time. He’s crazy, the motherfucker [literally: pa on je lud, picka mu materina!].”


When Babic testified against Milosevic last year as protected witness, it was clear that the former Serbian leader still felt contempt for him, and often made hostile remarks seemingly designed to give away C-061’s identity.


Karen Meirik is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.