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Comment: Plea Bargains Produce Impressive Results

Though often criticised, plea-bargaining is providing a rich source of evidence for war crimes cases.
By Chris Stephen

The plea bargain, that old staple of television police dramas, this week produced spectacular results in the war crimes court, when a former Bosnian Serb officer gave details of the massacre at Srebrenica.

Former brigade commander Momir Nikolic gave the first inside account of the worst massacre of the war in the court. In exchange, prosecutors dropped his charge of genocide.

Nikolic clearly hopes that by pleading guilty to the lesser charge of crimes against humanity, he'll receive a sentence of around 15 years imprisonment - much less than he might otherwise have expected.

The same logic has been at work in recent weeks, with several former detention camp commanders also pleading guilty.

The trend started last November, when former Bosnian Serb president Biljana Plavsic pleaded guilty, also to crimes against humanity. She saw other charges dropped and her 12-year sentence gives her at least some hope of outliving her time in prison.

These admissions seem deeply cynical. Are the sort of people who could carry out these kinds of crimes - involving thousands of victims, spread over months or years, and involving rape and the killing of children - really sorry? Or are they just trying to cut their time in jail?

This is a matter for debate. But the information they provide - which, in turn, leads to more indictments - is of huge value.

After years of mistakes and slips, the war crimes tribunal is focusing on getting credible evidence and persuading NATO to arrest suspects. The system works. Convictions do not hang on a single bit of testimony, or a dispute about one particular atrocity. There are no obvious technical loopholes. And many suspects know it.

For years prosecutors, faced with problems of cost, lack of witnesses, or an inability to track down indictees, must have felt like the mythological character Sisyphus, forever rolling a rock up a hill, only for it to crash right back down again.

But now things seem to be changing. The plea bargains are providing a snowball effect, with each guilty plea producing a mass of evidence against others.

And perhaps just as importantly, the guilty men and women have now committed honest accounts of their actions for the historical record.

Chris Stephen is IWPR's tribunal project manager.

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