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Milosevic, Croatian President Exchange Words in Tribunal Hearings - 2002-10-02

Slobodan Milsoevic and Croatian President Stipe Mesic battled it out in court Wednesday with the former Yugoslav leader seeking to discredit his old political opponent. Also from The Hague Tribunal, a former president of the Bosnian Serb Republic plead guilty to persecuting non-Serbs.

Stipe Mesic never once looked at Slobodan Milsoevic, but that didn't stop the exchanges between the long-time adversaries from being heated and personal. Interpreters had to work hard to keep up with the pace. Slobodan Milsoevic went first.

Milosevic:"You are testifying here that I was the one who broke up Yugoslavia. And you were in favor of Yugoslavia. But any child in Yugoslavia. Knows…"

Mesic: "I think we can reach agreement on one thing very quickly here. I am not the person on trial here."

Milosevic: "Well that's the point."

Judge May: "We're going to adjourn now. It's time, Mr. Milosevic."

Presiding Judge Richard May also worked hard to keep the dramatic proceedings under control as the two political leaders argued over their very different versions of Balkan history. Often frustrated, Judge May reminded Mr. Milosevic several times that accusing other people of crimes is not a legal defense.

President Mesic testified that Slobodan Milosevic broke up Yugoslavia. But Mr. Milsoevic said it was Stipe Mesic, as Yugoslavia's last president, who disbanded the country. During his cross-examination, Mr. Milosevic sought to discredit President Mesic by accusing him of everything from assassinating political rivals to cooperating with The Hague court in order to avoid his own guilt for war crimes. He also accused Mr. Mesic of being part of the Croatian nationalist movement that incited the Serbs there to violence.

"Pure fantasy" is how President Mesic answered most of those charges. While admitting Croatian nationalists inflamed anti-Serb sentiments and committed some war crimes, Mr. Mesic said he himself always worked for peace and that Croatia is now a lawful state prosecuting suspected war criminals. In any event, said Mr. Mesic, that's no reason to destroy Croatian cities like Vukovar and Dubrovnik or to massacre civilians. President Mesic's testimony continues Thursday.

In other news from the tribunal that could have implications for the Milosevic trial, a former president of the Bosnian Serb Republic plead guilty to persecuting non-Serbs in Bosnia in the early 1990s.

Speaking via a video link, 72-year-old Biljana Plavsic changed her original plea and admitted guilt to one count of persecution. In exchange for her guilty plea, prosecutors dropped all seven of the other charges against her, including genocide. Mrs. Plavsic has been on provisional release for a year, and her location was kept a highly guarded secret.

Speaking in The Hague, her lawyer said by accepting responsibility and expressing remorse, Mrs. Plavsic hopes to console victims from all three sides in the Bosnian war and to help her people move on and reconcile with their neighbors.

Prosecutors call Mrs. Plavsic's decision unprecedented and courageous. Indeed, Mrs. Plavsic is the first political leader, and the only Serbian one, to admit guilt.

Lawyer Heikelina Verrrijn Stuart said, "It's a word I don't like but it's a historical moment. It hasn't happened before in this way and in this war. It's still so problematic in the area and that somebody in charge within in the power group in Bosnia/Serbia, someone who knows everything that happened says now she's remorseful and admitting to every, every detail must for victims and perpetrators be huge step forward."

By pleading guilty, Mrs. Plavsic is admitting to the murder and torture of hundreds of non-Serbs at Bosnia's prison camps and the systematic rape of women in the town of Foca. But her lawyer says no deals were made with prosecutors regarding her sentence, which could be life in prison, and that she hasn't agreed to testify against anyone else at The Hague court, including former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milsoevic. But she may not have to.

In her guilty plea, Mrs. Plavsic admitted that the Bosnian Serbs worked with the Yugoslav army and Serbian paramilitary troops in Bosnia, something that could very well be used against Mr. Milosevic.

Prosecutors are trying to prove that Mr. Milsoevic, when he was the president of Serbia , was responsible for the wars in Bosnia and Croatia. Mrs. Plavsic may have just provided a crucial link.