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REGIONAL REPORT: Biljana's Belgrade Prison

The former president of Republika Srpska, Biljana Plavsic is under virtual house arrest in Belgrade as she awaits the beginning of her trial in The Hague.
By Zeljko Cvijanovic

Temporarily released by the tribunal six month ago, Biljana Plavsic, the former president of Republika Srpska, RS, is under virtual house arrest in a small downtown Belgrade apartment.

There, Plavsic, 72, waits for the start of her trial, in which she will defend herself against charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and other excesses committed against Muslims and Croats in Bosnia in the early Nineties.

Since being bailed by the tribunal, Plavsic has been living under strict rules prescribed by the international court and implemented by the Serbian police.

In the first few months of her stay in Belgrade, she was not subject to such restrictions. It seems security has been stepped up because of fears for her life - there's a possibility that she will testify against her former colleague Momcilo Krajisnik and Slobodan Milosevic.

The former president is unable to move freely and any visits by friends have to be announced days in advance and approved directly by The Hague, which even oversees her medical treatment.

Plavsic is allowed no contact with journalists or with persons who might appear as potential witnesses in her case. Several weeks ago, her friend Linda Karadjordjevic, a member of the Serbian royal family, with whom Plavsic organised several humanitarian actions in RS during the war, was forbidden from visiting.

The only people Plavsic is allowed to see regularly and without special permission are the family of her older brother Zdravko, refugees from Sarajevo, who live in her building.

"I had a greater freedom of movement in Scheveningen than in Belgrade," Plavsic has told the handful of friends she still sees regularly.

So far, the former president has only been able to take a few long walks outside town. After The Hague grants permission, Plavsic is taken under police guard to the Belgrade resorts of Avala and Ada where she is allowed to stroll. These outings take place early in the morning, when there are not a lot of people around.

In other respects, though, conditions are better than the tribunal detention unit, where poor heating worsened her arthritis and rheumatism.

And despite her hardships, friends say Plavsic is in good shape and has been spending her time watching Latin soap operas, decorating her flat, and even ferrying her old furniture from Banja Luka to Belgrade, clearly upbeat about her prospects at The Hague.

Plavsic faces a joint trial with Krajisnik, the former senior RS official. Previously scheduled for April this year, the case was postponed, because not all the prosecutor's evidence could be translated in time, and is now due to begin next autumn.

Krajisnik's lawyers fear that she will testify against their client. There's also a possibility of her doing the same in the trial of Slobodan Milosevic on the Bosnian indictment.

Tribunal chief prosecutor Carla del Ponte said late last year that she thought Plavsic would agree to the latter, but stressed that there would be no deals made with the former RS leader.

Plavsic, meanwhile, is preparing her defence in Belgrade and ready to argue her innocence. "She says that right from the start she was warning the others in the RS leadership about war crimes, but insists that she did not have enough influence to prevent them," a friend claimed.

Zeljko Cvijanovic is editor-in-chief of Belgrade weekly BlicNews and a member of IWPR's war crimes reporting network.