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

Biljana Plavsic Surrenders

Tribunal Update looks into the reasons behind Biljana Plavsic's decision to turn herself into The Hague tribunal, examines the accusations she faces and assesses the probability of her cooperating with prosecutors.
By IWPR

Why Did Biljana Plavsic Hand Herself In?


On Wednesday January 10, 2001, officials at The Hague confirmed Biljana Plavsic, former president of the Bosnian Serb entity, Republika Srpska, RS, had voluntarily surrendered to the international war crimes tribunal.


Prosecutors said an indictment against Plavsic had been issued on April 3, 2000 and sealed four days later by judge Patricia Wald.


The announcements ended two weeks of speculation as to whether Plavsic would go to The Hague and, if so, in what capacity - as a witness or indictee.


Tribunal officials said Plavsic surrendered after receiving a "signal" that she had been indicted and a warrant issued for her arrest.


Unofficial but reliable sources claim the signal came from United States diplomatic circles in Bosnia. US and British diplomats, and representatives from the Office of the Prosecutor, OTP, subsequently communicated with Plavsic and her defence counsel.


The tribunal claims "there were no negotiations, except over the technical and logistical details of surrender". Officials insist Plavsic made no promises and received no guarantees.


On the eve of her arrival, however, speculation was rife that she had secured a plea bargain, which would grant her some benefits - accommodation outside the United Nations detention unit, provisional release pending trial, or a lenient sentence in exchange for her testifying in some important trials.


The impending trial of Momcilo Krajisnik, former speaker of the Bosnian Serb parliament, was mentioned, as was that of Radislav Brdjanin, the former deputy prime minister of Republika Srpska, and RS army General Momir Talic.


It was also suggested Plavsic might give evidence against formerYugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, currently indicted for alleged crimes in Kosovo, but also under investigation at the tribunal for his role in Bosnia.


Plavsic's lawyer, Krstan Simic from Banja Luka, claims no such plea bargain was discussed.


Chief Prosecutor Carla Del Ponte also denies the issue was raised, but did not rule out the possibility such a deal could be reached later. "Plea bargaining is part of our procedure," she said.


If Plavsic has received no guarantees, then why did she surrender to the tribunal? Simic claims the reasons lie with his client's "moral, political and life principles" together with a realisation that it was "only in this place [the tribunal] can she prove she is not guilty, which she sincerely believes."


At her initial appearance at the tribunal, Plavsic, responding to the nine counts on her indictment, said "I do not feel guilty."


Once aware she was wanted by the tribunal, Plavsic was faced with little room to manoeuvre. She could either surrender voluntarily or be the first woman to be arrested by Stabilisation Force troops.


Plavsic clearly favoured the more dignified option, a decision described by Del Ponte as "the best possible outcome".


Going into hiding or flight from Bosnia was out of the question. Aside from her age - Plavsic is 70 - the former president has lost the sympathy of local police, paramilitaries and mafia in the entity - the very people essential to securing a safe haven like that enjoyed by her former colleague Radovan Karadzic.


Serbia, meanwhile, could soon cease to be a "country of refuge" for war crimes suspects. Plavsic could also envisage the new authorities in Belgrade "trading" her in, just as Milosevic "betrayed" her and the Bosnian Serb "cause" many times in the past.


Some circles in Serbia - including a number of those who came to power after the October "revolution" - have condemned Plavsic as a "traitor" for her dealings with the West following her rise to the RS presidency in 1996.


Plavsic, therefore, had little option but to surrender. In doing so she delivered a sharp lesson in personal courage to Karadzic and other Balkan "macho warriors" who have not been brave enough to face up to the consequences of their actions.


The Charges


(The complete text of the indictment against Plavsic is available on http://www.un.org/icty/indictment/english/pla-ii000407e.htm)


Plavsic faces nine counts, the same charges as Krajisnik.


According to the indictment, the crimes legally qualify as "genocide and complicity in genocide; crimes against humanity (five counts: extermination; murder; persecution on political, racial and religious grounds; deportation and inhumane acts); a grave breach of the Geneva Convention (wilful killing) and violation of the laws or customs of war (murder)."


The indictment, which covers the period July 1, 1991 to December 31, 1992, says Plavsic was an active member of the Bosnian Serb leadership during the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina.


A leading light in Karadzic's Serbian Democratic Party, SDS, she became a member of the Bosnian Serb presidency on May 12, 1992, which was chaired by Karadzic.


From June to December 1992, Karadzic, Krajisnik and Plavsic served on the War Presidency of the "Serbian republic". Towards the end of November 1992, the three joined the supreme command of the Bosnian Serb armed forces.


The indictment claims Plavsic individually or in concert with Karadzic, Krajisnik and others exercised de facto power and control over the Bosnian Serb armed forces, SDS and government authorities, which participated in the alleged crimes.


The presidency was the supreme commander of the Bosnian Serb army and police forces. It decided on the deployment of the army, the appointment, promotion and discharge of officers.


As a presidency member, the indictment goes on, Plavsic had the authority to punish or to initiate investigations or proceedings against any persons or members of the armed forces under her command who were believed to have committed crimes in the "Serbian republic".


The indictment claims Plavsic condoned and publicly congratulated forces that had taken part in the perpetration of crimes.


Between June 1991 and February 1992, Plavsic is alleged to have been continually briefed on the activities of the police, territorial defence, military and paramilitary groups operating in the municipalities. She is said to have taken decisions and issued directives affecting their resources, operational capabilities and command structure.


In addition to these charges of individual responsibility, Plavsic, like Krajisnik, is charged with participating in crimes "in order to secure control of those areas of Bosnia and Herzegovina which had been proclaimed part of the 'Serbian republic'".


In order to achieve this objective, the indictment says, the Bosnian Serb leadership, including Plavsic, "initiated and implemented...persecution and terror tactics, that would have the effect of encouraging non-Serbs to leave those areas; the deportation of those who were reluctant to leave; and the liquidation of others."


By the end of 1992, the indictment states, this conduct had resulted in the death or forced departure of a significant portion of the non-Serb population.


Plavsic's Likely Defence


The charges against Plavsic are identical to those faced by Krajisnik.


Deputy Prosecutor Graham Blewitt signed the indictment against Plavsic on April 3, 2000 - the same day Krajisnik was arrested in Pale. Judge Patricia Wald placed it under the tribunal seal on April 7 - the day Krajisnik pleaded "not guilty" to all charges. (See Tribunal Update No. 171).


Plavsic said in response to the nine counts, "I do not feel guilty". Her defence lawyer said Plavsic will "defend herself with the truth".


When asked whether this truth would include Plavsic pointing to the real culprits, Simic said his client, during the period covered by the indictment (July 1, 1991 - December 31, 1992), was not only "marginalised in the decision-making process" of the Bosnian Serb political and military leadership, but "did not have knowledge" of who decided what or what the consequences of those decisions would be.


According to Simic, Plavsic dealt mainly with "humanitarian affairs". But these comments were made before the defence had had the opportunity to examine the "ample material evidence" which provided the basis for the indictment. That material was made available to Plavsic's legal team immediately after the indictment was unsealed. Perhaps their strategy might change in light of the contents.


In the meantime, Simic has admitted he is "not very happy" at the prosecutor's request to try Plavsic and Krajisnik together. Simic argues there could be a "conflict of interest" between the defences of the two defendants in a joint trial.


But Plavsic's lawyer believes a joint trial is inevitable because the two cases concern the same facts. Simic predicted the Plavsic and Krajisnik trial would begin in September 2001.


Will Plavsic cooperate with the Prosecution?


At the news conference to announce Plavsic's surrender to The Hague tribunal, Del Ponte said she believed the accused would cooperate "to establish the truth about what really happened".


Del Ponte mentioned the possibility of "reducing the sentence for all accused who cooperate", adding that the "plea bargain is also part of our procedure."


Up to now, the chief prosecutor has shown a high level of cooperation with Plavsic and her defence counsel. For the first time in tribunal history, Del Ponte appeared alongside the defence counsel at a press conference. She encouraged Simic to answer questions she could not or did not want to field.


During Plavsic's initial appearance Del Ponte wholeheartedly supported Simic's objections over the conditions of detention for his client - detaining a woman in a male prison facility. The UN detention unit at Scheveningen currently houses 35 male prisoners and Plavsic.


Faced with this solidarity between defence and prosecution, tribunal president Claude Jorda called a closed hearing on the matter immediately after the initial hearing finished and on receipt of a formal objection from Simic over Plavsic's conditions of detention. Del Ponte reportedly supported the defence's request that the accused be held in a "safe house" outside the detention unit.


The problem, however, is that such accommodation is very expensive. Tihomir Blaskic, the former Bosnian Croat military commander serving a 45 year prison sentence, was kept in a safe house provided by the Dutch authorities at a cost of 200,000 Dutch guilders per month. The Croatian government, then under President Franjo Tudjman, footed the bill.


Plavsic's defence, however, is insisting the tribunal cover the costs because it failed to secure "adequate conditions of detention" for indicted women.


The tribunal registry is, meanwhile, investigating why the Dutch authorities charge so much money for providing safe houses.


Although not afforded special accommodation, Plavsic has enjoyed distinctly dignified treatment during her first days at The Hague.


The full trial chamber, made up of three judges, sat for her initial appearance. For several years it has been common practice for only one judge to sit at such hearings. Krajisnik, for example, was heard only by judge Richard May, who refused the accused request to "say something in his defence".


As for Plavsic cooperating with the tribunal prosecutors, Simic said, "It is the right of the prosecutor to expect what he wants, while it is the right of Mrs Plavsic to defend herself as she thinks best."


Simic clearly does not believe testifying against other defendants would be in Plavsic's best interests. At least for now.


According to Simic, Plavsic has agreed to an interview with the prosecution. Many others have done the same. General Radislav Krstic, accused of genocide for his role in the Srebrenica killings, claimed in his interviews all blame for those crimes rested with his superior General Ratko Mladic and his "Knin clan" of former Yugoslav People's Army officers.


Simic said expectations that Plavsic could go further than name others and appear as a "key prosecution witness" were unrealistic. Simic also dismissed as "internal political manipulations" rumours put about in Republika Srpska of his client's readiness to cooperate with the prosecution.