In Yugoslav tribunal, welling up of conscience

Radovan Karadzic appears Friday to answer to charges of war crimes in the 1990s.


Before the dazzling Olympics and the war in Georgia, world attention focused on the capture of Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, the accused architect of genocide posing as a guru. Mr. Karadzic appears Friday here at the Yugoslav tribunal to plead innocent or guilty for a one-sided war whose inhumanity was even this week disputed by Moscow.

Karadzic is not expected to plead guilty. Yet over the years a stream of defendants – mostly ignored – have broken from the pack, overcome intense pressures, and helped illumine the court's mission to establish a record of truth: They did plead guilty.

"During many sleepless nights, I kept asking ... how is it that possible that we did this to each other?" stated Miroslav Deronjic, a Serb leader who pled guilty to destroying a town. "I have not found the answers ... but I know one thing: If the truth cannot save us, then really nothing can save us."

Of 161 accused by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), some 20 persons – colonels and privates, political leaders and paramilitary honchos – have said essentially, "I did it."

In a war the scope of whose horror is still largely denied in Serbia, these collective admissions, the eyewitness accounts of what happened on this day at this time in an attack or massacre, the descriptions of being swept up in a racial project of hate and brutality, the often heartfelt regret at violence that one confessor said "scattered us to the far corners of the earth" – all of these make up some of the most powerful records in the first court of its kind since the Nazi trials at Nuremberg.

Defied boss's threat, told the truth

The tribunal's first trial of Drazen Erdemovic, who killed dozens of Bosnian Muslims at the Srebrenica massacre, and who court officials still say may have been the court's most important witness, wanted to tell his story – insisted upon it. When Mr. Erdemovic arrived at the Hague, Milan Babic, the leader of Krajina Serbs accused of coordinating persecution of Croats, pushed him hard not to testify.

Yet Erdemovic told Mr. Babic and the court that "because of those victims, because of my conscience, because of my life ... my child and my wife, I cannot change what I said ... because of the peace of my mind, my soul, my honesty, because of the victims and war and because of everything."

Later, in an about-face, Babic himself admitted guilt, becoming in the eyes of many tribunal insiders one of the more authentically contrite pleaders: "I can only hope that by expressing the truth, by admitting to my guilt, and expressing remorse, [I] can serve as an example to those who still mistakenly believe that such inhumane acts can ever be justified," Babic told the court on January 27, 2004. "I ask from my brothers, Croats, to forgive us, their brother Serbs, and I pray for the Serb people to turn to the future..."

"It is quite amazing [those who confessed] took this step," says Cecile Aptel, a former ICTY official now with the Center for Transitional Justice in Washington. "The accused not only had to come to terms with the crimes individually, but it is also very courageous, since they are themselves part of a criminal enterprise. By apologizing, they are thought of as traitors, and this makes it difficult."

To be sure, ICTY prosecutors can offer a "plea bargain" – though they can't make deals. Under tribunal rules, only judges can sentence. Court staff hardly believe all confessions are a result of soul-searching – the human heart is too complex, and some guilty pleas fall in a very grey area – but many are seen as genuine.

Court officials, who asked for anonymity, say plea bargains are a tool for efficiency, not an escape route for the accused. Their chance to cooperate is voided if they are caught lying or manipulating.

Confessions importantly help "put the puzzle together" in other trials, court spokeswoman Nerma Jelagic points out.

"The people with the most knowledge are the perpetrators," says a senior official in the prosecutor's office. "When you are dealing with organized crime, you need the assistance of the people most involved. You have to penetrate the cabal. But these people understand they are going to prison."

For some accused, the idea of sitting in a Dutch suburb prison eating home-cooked meals appears preferable to going home and facing the neighbors whose sons were shot and daughters raped.

Ms. Aptel plays down plea bargains as a primary motive to admit guilt, and says the hope for lighter sentences doesn't "impact the authenticity of these confessions."

"Those who confess have come to this by many ways, but the intrinsic recognition of the criminal act is central to the truth-telling and healing. I can't say enough about that. It is central to what the court does, but it doesn't get attention."

'I had peaceful relations' until ...

The confessions describe rounding up neighbors, separating families. They admit remorse at the murder of women and children, at watching their honor as soldiers slip away, or for being silent as leaders. Some talk of years of emotional confusion that lifted when they decided to confront themselves and tell the truth.

Some pleas are short. Others go on for pages. Not untypical is Darko Mrda, a member of an "intervention squad" of Bosnian Serb police who escorted a convoy of Bosnian Muslim prisoners on Aug. 21, 1992, in Prijedor. It was an ordinary morning where he "did not think anything particular would happen.... However, that's not how it was." He was asked to separate military-aged men in the convoy. "I participated in separating and killing these innocent people."

Yet he grew up thinking "until the very last moment ... that I would be a member of a generation that would live its life in peace.... I had peaceful relations with my neighbors, Muslims and Croats. We lived together and socialized together, and I even had girlfriends [who] were non-Serbs." But he says an atmosphere created by "radio, television, press, everything was full of threats against Serbs and against Muslims."

A senior prosecutor says, "Most of the people on trial are well educated, with manners and families and who would not do these things in their daily lives."

Karadzic's No. 2 pleaded guilty

Most confessions mention the importance of reconciliation in the Balkans: "If my attempt to face myself contributes to the quicker healing of these wounds, I will have done my duty [as] a soldier, a fighter, a human being, and a father."

If Mr. Karadzic, facing the court Friday, feels such remorse, it did not register in a four-page letter he wrote on July 31 and sent to the tribunal just days after his capture. The letter stated that he had been promised immunity in a secret deal with Clinton White House envoy Richard Holbrooke, and that his arrest is illegal. The former Bosnian Serb president is expected to defend himself.

The cooperation of Biljana Plavsic, the No. 2 Bosnian Serb political authority under Karadzic, may be of real significance in his trial. Ms. Plavsic pleaded guilty in 2002 of responsibility in thousands of deaths over five years. She told the court, "I have now come to the belief and accept the fact that many thousands of innocent people were the victims of an organized, systematic effort to remove Muslims and Croats from the territory claimed by Serbs. By the end, it was said, even among our own people, that in this war we had lost our nobility of character. The obvious question becomes, 'If this truth is now self-evident, why did I not see it earlier?' "

Kelly Askin of the Open Society Justice Initiative in New York, and other court officials, say that testimony by Plavsic will be admissible. But with rumors swirling over whether Plavsic is renouncing her plea of guilt, it is questionable whether she will testify against her former boss.

During the Plavsic trial, one expert witness, Alex Boraine, who had served as head of the Methodist Church in South Africa and been part of that country's post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission, told the court that the kind of accountability brought through confessions are crucial for a society to recover after war.

"If accountability is not present, then the reconciliation would be a contradiction in terms. I think systems of criminal justice exist not simply to determine guilt or innocence, but also to contribute to a safe and peaceful society."

Often, those who plead guilty know that others have committed worse acts. One Hague staffer who investigated a midlevel officer accused of war crimes began to realize that other officers were more guilty. "You began to see that a lot of the question about who came to the Hague was local politics," said the staffer. "Yes, those indicted may have had a good case against them. But you could see there were three or four around them [who were] zealots, more responsible."

Journalist Mirko Klarin, who has covered the tribunal daily for more than a decade, said he began to conceive a film after watching Goran Jelisic, the self-proclaimed "Serbian Adolf" who ran the Luka detention camp near Brcko. Mr. Jeliscic did not make a confession; he pleaded guilty. But he was already notorious in the region. "The power of this man standing up 31 times and saying I'm guilty ... even if he denied the genocide charge, was something that went past my ability to write," says Mr. Klarin. "It was incredibly powerful, and I realized this story should be told as a documentary ... people needed to see this. Words weren't enough."

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