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Babic Suicide a Blow for Prosecutors

Former Serb leader provided key testimony against his onetime allies.
By Janet Anderson
One of the Yugoslavia tribunal’s key insider witnesses, Milan Babic, committed suicide in his cell at the Hague detention unit Sunday night, dealing a blow to prosecutors in future trials in which he was slated to testify, according to tribunal insiders.

Babic, the former leader of the rebel Serbs in Croatia’s Krajina region, was serving a 13-year sentence after pleading guilty to being a co-perpetrator in persecutions against Croats on political racial and religious grounds between 1991 and 1992.

As part of a plea agreement, Babic has already testified at a series of trials - including that of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic - and was due to appear in court today, March 6, again as a prosecution witness.

But he was also expected to take the stand in many other trials over the next few years.

“[Babic] was one of the most critical high-ranking tribunal insider witnesses,” said Edgar Chen, representative of the Coalition for International Justice at the Tribunal. “He’s given key evidence across the entire gamut of the Croatia indictments.”

According to tribunal insiders, his suicide is a blow for the prosecution, because he was an “excellent” witness in all the trials he took part in so far.

Alexandra Milenov, spokesperson for the tribunal told IWPR, said the Babic’s suicide is “disappointing for the region, because he had taken the decision to contribute to establishing the truth of what happened…through his testimony at the tribunal”.

Babic’s testimonies have marked by recurring expressions of personal shame and remorse. Heikelina Verrijn Stuart, a lawyer and long-term tribunal observer, said, “He realised what he had been a part of.”

He told the court at his trial in 2004, “Innocent people were persecuted; innocent people were evicted forcibly from their houses; and innocent people were killed….I kept silent….and I became personally responsible for the inhumane treatment of innocent people.”

He has presented himself in court as someone who was misled and betrayed by Milosevic, once a key ally, and has repeatedly expressed regret for the way that Serb political leaders planned to cleanse large swathes of Croatian territory and attach it to Serbia proper in an attempt to build a “Greater Serbia”.

During the brutal war in Croatia, which began in the summer of 1991, Babic became president of the so-called Republic of Serbian Krajina, RSK. Thousands of non-Serbs were killed and tens of thousands expelled in the conflict.

At each trial, he has repeated an appeal from his own trial that his “brother Croats forgive us their brother Serbs”.

In Croatia, his admission of guilt and pleas for forgiveness was treated with angry contempt, while in Serbia he is seen as a traitor in nationalist circles. Indeed, Babic said repeatedly that his cooperation with the prosecutor’s office has provoked numerous threats against him and his family.

Babic was due to take the stand again today to continue his testimony against Milan Martic, another Croatian Serb leader who eventually ousted him from the RSK presidency. He was reaching the end of his cross-examination by Martic’s defence counsel, Predrag Milovancevic, who described him as the trial’s “most important prosecution witness”.

This would have been the third week of his testimony.

Babic was expected to return to The Hague to testify in the trial of Franko “Frenki” Simatovic who founded and was the first commander of a special operations unit formally known as the Red Berets, allegedly responsible for ethnic cleansing in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo.

He was also due to give evidence against Jovica Stanisic, former head of the Serbian state security service, and Serb ultra-nationalist politician Vojislav Seselj.

The former RSK leader first made contact with the tribunal back in 2001, when he found that he had been named in the indictment against Milosevic as a co-perpetrator of a “joint criminal enterprise” to remove the non-Serb population of Croatia.

In the event of Bosnian Serb army general Ratko Mladic - an alleged ringleader of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in which some 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed - being arrested, Babic would also have testified against him, as another member of the joint criminal enterprise.

In 2002, Babic gave evidence against Milosevic, describing a parallel command structure established by Milosevic’s secret police. He confirmed that events had not been controlled from Knin, the capital of the RSK, but rather by Belgrade.

He also testified against former Bosnian Serb parliamentary speaker Momčilo Krajišnik in 2004, but behind closed doors.

Earlier that year, as part of a plea agreement, he pleaded guilty to one count of crimes against humanity - persecution of non-Serbs on political, racial and religious grounds - in return for the prosecutor recommending an 11-year prison sentence. In the end, the trial chamber decided to hand down a 13-year sentence, later confirmed by the appeals chamber.

As part of the plea agreement, Babic accepted “full responsibility” for the actions listed in the indictment against him.

In the factual statement accompanying his plea, Babic acknowledged that during his time as president of Serb-held Krajina, he had become “an ethnic egoist, a person who exclusively wanted to see to the interests of people to which [he] belonged”. He also conceded that he had “neglected the interests and suffering of …the Croatian people”.

Few high-ranking leaders have so far confessed to their actions at the tribunal since the first guilty plea in May 1996, when Drazen Erdemovic admitted to involvement in the Srebrenica massacre.

The biggest breakthrough for the prosecutor’s office was when another ethnic Serb - former Bosnian Serb president Biljana Plavsic - pleaded guilty in October 2002, but she did not agree to testify against others.

To prevent this situation from recurring, the prosecution changed their strategy so that when Babic submitted his plea, he was required to “freely answer” all questions put to him by the prosecutor’s office.

Babic’s death is the second case of suicide at the tribunal’s Scheveningen detention unit.

In June 1998, Slavko Dokmanovic, a municipal official charged with having participated in the massacre of some 250 non-Serbs in the Croatian town of Vukovar, was found to have hung himself from his wardrobe door with a tie, just days before his verdict was due to be announced

The tribunal’s internal inquiry found that there had been no “negligent behaviour” by Dutch detention staff, who were checking the accused at half-hourly intervals. However, the official report also states that the detainee made two unsuccessful attempts to commit suicide on the evening he died, which were not visible to prison guards.

Milosevic was under constant suicide watch when he was first transferred to the tribunal. This was gradually relaxed after he announced in October 2001 that he would never kill himself because of his determination " to overthrow this court and this mockery of a trial and its paymasters”.

Between July 2005 and the beginning of February, Babic has been held at an undisclosed European jail.

Babic’s star performance in the Martic trial over the last few weeks has had observers riveted.

He repeated accusations that the military and political leadership in Belgrade were orchestrating armed rebellion in Croatia at the beginning of Nineties.

“Armed forces in Krajina were commanded by two parallel structures of command, and on top of them both were Slobodan Milošević,” he told the court.

Behind Milosevic, stated Babić, was Stanišić and behind him Martić.

Babić also described how Belgrade aimed in 1991 to provoke the Croatian police in order to draw the Yugoslav People’s Army, JNA, into the emerging conflict, on the side of the Serbs.

He also started to lay the groundwork for the prosecutions in the other trials in which he was expected to testify.

His recent testimony is bound to be challenged by Martic’s defence lawyers, but legal observers believe that much of it will be allowed to stand because it was already subject to robust cross-examination.

Australian judge Kevin Parker has been tasked with leading the inquiry into Babic’s death. Milenov told IWPR that it would establish if there should be a change in procedure following the suicide. However, she added that he was kept isolated from other prisoners at the detention unit because of his special circumstances.

Janet Anderson is director of IWPR’s international justice programme and Helen Warrell is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.

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