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Blagoje Simic Surrenders

Blagoje Simic last week appeared before judge Patrick Robinson to plead not guilty to charges of ethnic cleansing in Bosanski Samac, just three days after voluntarily surrendering to the tribunal.

According to the Hague indictment, Simic was "the highest ranking civilian official" in Bosanski Samac, a town in the north of Bosnia, between 1991 and 1995.

He was head of the local branch of the Serbian Democratic Party, SDS, the Serb crisis staff and war presidency and the municipal assembly. During his term in office, especially between 1992 and 1993, the indictment alleges the municipalities of Bosanski Samac and Ozdak were thoroughly ethnically cleansed of their Croat and Muslim inhabitants.

Of the estimated 17,000 Croats and Muslims resident in Bosanski Samac before the war, only 300 remained by May 1995. All 22,500 Croats and Muslims in Odzak were moved out of the area.

Simic's role in this process qualified as crimes against humanity (persecution on political, racial, religious grounds and deportation) and a grave breach of the Geneva Convention of 1949 (unlawful deportation or transfer).

Simic gave up the right to hear the indictment read out in court because, as his defence counsel said, in the six years since it was issued "he had had enough time to get to know its contents in detail".

Simic pleaded "not guilty" to all the charges.

There is no doubt Simic was one of the 15 accused whose arrest and transfer to the Hague was requested by Carla Del Ponte during her January visit to Belgrade.

After her trip, the chief prosecutor said on more than one occasion that she would be ready to consider Belgrade as beginning to cooperate if at least one or two of the indictees were handed over in the near future.

She stressed that "those whose trials are ready to begin" should have priority.

Simic fits the bill perfectly. His co-accused Stevan Todorovic made a deal with the prosecutors in December 2000. Todorovic pleaded guilty to one count of his indictment - persecution on political, racial and religious grounds -and agreed to stop challenging the legality of his arrest, in exchange for prosecutors dropping other charges and requesting a reduced sentence.

The Todorovic deal cleared the way for the start of the Bosanski Samac trial.

Three accused - Milan Simic, Miroslav Tadic and Simo Zaric - surrendered to the tribunal in February 1998. They were provisionally released pending the start of the trial, now scheduled for October 2001. Todorovic will appear as a prosecution witness against his former co-accused.

Simic's surrender makes it possible to try all the Bosanski Samac indictees together - a rarity for tribunal "collective indictments".

The one issued for crimes by the Croatian Defence Forces in the Lasva valley for example resulted in three separate trials after indictees arrived at The Hague at different times.

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