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Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal Sets Record Straight on Genocide - 2003-08-16


Ten years after it was first created, the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in The Hague is now a fully functioning court. Ninety-one accused war criminals have been brought before it, 38 of them already tried. Like most national jurisdictions in the world, the tribunal has now also seen its share of guilty pleas and their numbers are rising.

Darko Mrdja was back in the dock, clean-shaven and looking smart with his suit, goatee, and glasses. It was a noticeable change from his first court appearance last year, when the former policeman, a Bosnian Serb, pleaded not guilty to massacring more than 200 prisoners of war. But his appearance wasn't the only thing that changed in court last month.

"I am guilty on the counts two and three," he said.

Just days before his trial was to start, Darko Mrdja pleaded guilty to murder and inhumane acts. In doing so, he set the record straight about what happened to 200 non-Serb prisoners on August 21, 1992.

They were separated from a larger convoy of civilians. They were told they would be part of a prisoner exchange. Instead, the men were driven to a cliff, forced to kneel at its edge, and shot to death. "Here is where we do the exchange," said Mrdja before his men opened fire.

Mrdja's surprise admission of guilt is the court's 12th so far. It's a legal trend welcomed by prosecutors and one that Judith Armatta calls tremendously significant. She's a lawyer with the Coalition for International Justice based in The Hague.

"Legally, it does a couple things," she said. "One, it saves a lot of time and expense in trying an accused. Two, when they agree to testify against their co-accused, your case has changed. You have that major insider witness who can give that kind of testimony. That's tremendously significant you can't have anything better."

The Blagojevic case is the Tribunal's second Srebrenica genocide trial. Two former Bosnian Serb army commanders are charged with the 1995 mass murder of thousands of Muslim men and boys in what's largely regarded as Europe's worst atrocity since World War II.

There were supposed to be four men in the dock, but at the start of the trial, two of them pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against their former colleagues. In sworn statements to prosecutors, Momir Nikolic and Dragan Obrenovic became the first Bosnian Serb officers to make the stunning admission that the mass executions at Srebrenica were planned and even openly discussed at a meeting. Their insider testimony will be crucial to the case. They also confirmed the numbers - more than 7,000 killed - that many Bosnian Serbs still dispute. To Emir Suljagic, a Bosnian journalist who was working as a translator in Srebrenica at the time of the massacres, their guilty pleas mean that no one can ever again say that Srebrenica never happened.

"They also put an end to what has been a very systematic effort on the part of the Bosnian Serb authorities to try and do everything to conceal the crimes, their tracks, other people who took part in it," said Emir Suljagic. "And the other thing is that there is really nothing to prove any longer in the sense that the victims had been so contaminated by the Bosnian Serb authorities and we had to prove they were innocent and had done nothing wrong. Now we don't really have to do it." And neither do prosecutors. Securing guilty pleas is part of their strategy. That's according to Graham Blewitt, the Tribunal's deputy prosecutor. He says the court-time saved by eliminating trials helps move the court towards its five-year goal for finishing its work. More importantly, says Mr. Blewitt, uncontested acknowledgments of guilt and the remorse that usually accompanies them, helps victims heal and facilitates reconciliation.

"If it means important people who were responsible for serious crimes are acknowledging guilt and accepting responsibility for it, it can only help in region, particularly with all the denial that takes place," he said. "If it also means getting important evidence against those higher up the chain of command, that's something we value very much."

Cooperation with prosecutors is a key factor judges take into consideration in meting out sentences. And that could account for the rise in guilty pleas. Another reason, say court watchers, may be the so-called snowball effect, especially when those lower down the chain of command see their superiors pleading guilty. As in the case of Biljana Plavsic, the former President of the Bosnian Serb Republic, Radovan Karadzic's successor.

"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," said Ms. Plavsic.

Last year, Biljana Plavsic admitted that the leadership she was a part of encouraged a plan of ethnic cleansing. She became the first political leader in the Balkans to accept responsibility for the crimes. Her stunning mea culpa in court helped secure her an 11-year sentence for what was originally a genocide charge.

"At the time, I easily convinced myself that this was a matter of survival and self-defense," she said. "In fact, it was more, our leadership of which I was a necessary part, led an effort which victimized countless innocent people. Explanations of self-defense and survival offer no justification."

Prosecutors say genocide is a hard crime to prove, and in some cases, they don't mind dropping the charge. By pleading guilty to persecution, prosecutors say Mrs. Plavsic admitted to all the elements of the crime, from the establishment of prison camps in Northwest Bosnia to the systematic rape of women in the town of Foca.

Even so, such admissions haven't radically changed the way many Bosnian Serbs still view the war. But as one survivor says, it's a good start. The knowledge that something terrible happened is slowly seeping in. Here in The Hague, meanwhile, confessions are already being recorded as historical fact.

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