Nikolic Guilty Plea Disappoints Victims

The tribunal viewed Serb officer's confession as a coup, but Srebrenica survivors see manner of prosecution as a betrayal.

Nikolic Guilty Plea Disappoints Victims

The tribunal viewed Serb officer's confession as a coup, but Srebrenica survivors see manner of prosecution as a betrayal.

Tuesday, 22 February, 2005

When Momir Nikolic, a Bosnian Serb security officer accused of helping orchestrate the 1995 Srebrenica massacres, pleaded guilty last week to crimes against humanity, prosecutors in The Hague felt they had won one of the major victories in the nine years of the tribunal's existence.

In their minds, a Bosnian Serb officer taking responsibility for the worst atrocities committed in Europe since the Second World War would, more than almost anything else, help ease the atmosphere of denial that grips the Serb half of Bosnia.

"Every guilty plea is a victory over revisionism and denial. There was denial on the part of some political circles in Banja Luka, and this plea is very significant in establishing the truth,” the spokeswoman for the prosecution, Florence Hartmann, told IWPR.

But many of the victims of horrific crimes in Srebrenica – the people the tribunal is designed to serve – did not see it that way.

In exchange for pleading guilty and agreeing to testify against the three other Bosnian Serb officers indicted for the Srebrenica massacres, the prosecution dropped four of the counts against Nikolic, including the charges of genocide, and agreed to prosecute him only for crimes against humanity. They also agreed to ask for a sentence of between 15-20 years rather than life.

It was those two aspects of the plea agreement that resonated with survivor groups in Bosnia. Groups such as the Mothers of the Srebrenica and Zepa Enclaves – who are not accustomed to the idea of plea bargains and often don’t understand the legal process in The Hague – said they felt betrayed by the tribunal.

“We are disappointed by this deal. The Hague tribunal should not have a green light to bargain over such things as genocide," said Munira Subasic, chairperson of the group who lost both her son and her husband.

“How they can relieve Nikolic of genocide charges? The genocide happened. We know that,” said Kada Hodzic, another member whose husband was also killed in the war.

“We expect justice, but we are getting injustice. This is shattering me more than the crime itself."

The difference in how the tribunal viewed Nikolic’s guilty plea and how the victims of his crimes perceived it is one of the fundamental problems of the Hague legal process.

The job of trying to bridge that gap – of making the legal proceedings in Holland understandable to the Balkan public – falls to the tribunal’s outreach programme.

Upon hearing of the Srebrenica women’s reactions, Hodzic scheduled a meeting with a group of Srebrenica survivors in Sarajevo to try to explain how the legal process works, how Nikolic’s admission of guilt would help establish the truth in the public’s eye, and how his plea would aid the prosecution of the other officers accused of the murders.

The victims listened to what Hodzic had to say.

"They have become aware of the implications of such a course of events and the positive development of the situation,” Hodzic said after his meeting with them.

But simply informing them of how the tribunal worked was not enough to allay their anger.

Subasic said that she was glad this plea would help the court bring to justice others suspected of participating in the murder operation in Srebrenica, but that it still didn’t change the fact that the most serious charges against Nikolic were dropped and that he would only serve 15-20 years.

It’s not hard to see why Subasic was upset. She said it was Nikolic who personally picked her son out of a group of men in Srebrenica.

"Nikolic killed and he cannot be pardoned for that. His conscience has awakened, but no one can bring back my son and my husband,” she said. "Is it not disgraceful for Nikolic to receive a prison sentence of between 15 and 20 years for participating in the murder of 7,000 people from Srebrenica?”

Amra Kebo is commentator for the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje. Emir Suljagic is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.

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