'Ice Queen' plea gives tribunal boost

The highest-ranking war-crimes suspect brought in from Bosnia pleaded 'not guilty' yesterday.

Standing erect and stony faced, former Bosnian Serb President Biljana Plavsic pleaded "not guilty" to nine counts of genocide and other crimes against humanity here yesterday.

The most senior suspect yet to appear in the dock at the United Nations war crimes tribunal, Bosnia's so-called "Ice Queen" turned herself in voluntarily Wednesday, apparently hoping for lenient treatment.

Her surrender marks a major coup for the prosecutors of Bosnian war crimes - and for the still nascent concept of international justice.

An ardent supporter of "ethnic cleansing," Ms. Plavsic has much insider's knowledge that could help prosecutors in key cases they are building against other indicted war criminals like Slobodan Milosevic, the recently deposed Yugoslav president, former Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic, and his military chief, Ratko Mladic. Her indictment comes at a time when the effectiveness of the slow-moving court was being questioned. "We could not think of any better boost to our credibility," says Christian Chartier, a spokesman for the International Criminal Tribunal. "A corner is being turned here."

Looking dispassionate but elegant in a lavender suit and jersey, with a large golden cross hanging from a chain around her neck, Plavsic told the presiding judge that she "understood [the indictment] fully, and I plead not guilty to all the counts."

Plavsic, whose haughty manner and vitriolic nationalism earned her such sobriquets as "The Serb Empress," was deputy to Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic during the 1992-1995 Bosnian war. The former biology professor later took over from him as president.

"She is in a position to give us a lot of information," says Florence Hartmann, spokeswoman for chief prosecutor Carla del Ponte. "She has cooperated by surrendering, and she can continue to cooperate by testifying. We are hoping she will give us evidence against other suspects."

Ms. del Ponte insisted, however, that she had done no deals with Plavsic to persuade her to surrender, beyond arranging the details of her travel from her home in Banja Luka in Bosnia to The Hague. In the past, the tribunal prosecutor has made plea-bargain arrangements with other detainees in return for testimony, and Plavsic can expect similar treatment, legal experts say.

Krstan Simic, Plavsic's attorney, told reporters that his client had turned herself in because "she is aware that this is the only place where she can prove that she is not guilty, which she deeply believes."

Plavsic's appearance is a big boost for the tribunal, which has been accused of trying only "little fish" for war crimes. "The noose is tightening," says Mr. Chartier. "There is a clear pattern in the personalities arrested over the past two years of getting to the core."

The Bosnian Serb leader's surrender now is seen by court officials as especially fortuitous because of a growing momentum to try suspected war criminals elsewhere than in The Hague. New Serbian President Vojislav Kostunica has refused to hand over Mr. Milosevic, or any other indicted war criminals living in Serbia, and is proposing that they be tried in Belgrade. Russia and China are sympathetic to this idea, and even US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright appeared to suggest last week that Washington would not oppose the idea of Milosevic standing trial before the war crimes tribunal sitting in Belgrade, instead of The Hague.

Nor have NATO peacekeepers in Bosnia arrested any suspected war criminals for the past eight months. "It has been very gloomy at the tribunal recently," says Mary Greer, a court-watcher here with the Washington-based International Coalition for Justice, a group that follows the tribunal's work. Plavsic's surrender "is a shot in the arm, and it comes at a really good time."

Thirty-nine publicly indicted war criminals from the Bosnian conflict are still on the run, along with an unknown number of people against whom the prosecutor has issued secret indictments. Del Ponte has indicated that she is planning investigations into atrocities committed in Bosnia and Kosovo that she hopes will lead to another 150 indictments.

At the court's current rate of progress, it would not hear the last of those cases until 2016, according to the tribunal's president, Claude Jorda. That prospect has prompted a number of reforms in recent months, with judges taking a more activist role to speed up trials, and the creation of a pool of 27 more judges which will enable the tribunal to double its caseload.

"It is a race against the clock," says Chartier, as witnesses' memories fade and victims begin to lose confidence in the court's credibility.

At the same time, Judge Jorda is anxious to clear the tribunal's docket as far as possible before the most senior suspects are tried. "It is difficult to imagine the senior political and military leaders of the countries involved in the conflict spending many months on remand before their trials can begin," he said in a report to the United Nations last year.

There are no signs yet that leaders such as Milosevic or Karadzic are ready to turn themselves in, but the tribunal could take some steps to encourage them.

Plavsic's lawyer, for example, asked yesterday that his 70-year-old client not be held in the detention center where the 34 other detainees are being held on remand, because they are all men, and she is a woman. Judge Jorda, who will rule on the request, said after the hearing that he would consider "several alternatives."

No date has been set for the start of Plavsic's trial.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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