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UN War Crimes Tribunal Opens Sentencing for Former Bosnian-Serb President - 2002-12-16

The United Nations war crimes tribunal in the Hague opened a sentencing hearing Monday for former Bosnian Serb president Biljana Plasvic, who has pleaded guilty to crimes against humanity. The opening day included remarks from the French capital by Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel.

A parade of defense and prosecution witnesses testified Monday, as the sentencing hearing opened against former Bosnian Serb president Biljana Plavsic. Now 72 years old, the one-time biology professor is the highest ranking former Yugoslav official to acknowledge her role in Bosnia-Herzegovina's brutal 1992-1995 civil war.

Nobel peace laureate Elie Wiesel spoke to the tribunal from Paris during Monday's hearing. He said crimes such as those condoned by Mrs. Plasvic result in life long scars on both the victims and the perpetrators. He questioned how an intellectual like Mrs. Plasvic could remain silent in the face of so much bloodshed and indignity, during the Bosnian war a decade ago.

As with previous hearings at the Hague tribunal, the day was a mix of unremarkable details, and jarring reminiscences. Bosnian Adil Draganovic described horrific conditions at one Bosnian detention camp set up by Bosnian Serb authorities, in the early 1990s.

"In the first three months it was a camp of hunger. People were starved. There was not enough food, and what there was was poor quality food," Mr. Draganovic said.

Mr. Draganovic, president of a group of former detention camp inmates, said he also personally witnessed people being shot dead by camp guards. He said he has never recovered from the experience.

Mrs. Plasvic rose to become the deputy of former Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, who has also been indicted for war crimes. She replaced him in 1996. Throughout her political career she remained fiercely anti-Muslim. She was once photographed stepping over a Bosnian Muslim corpse, to kiss a notorious paramilitary leader, known as Arkan.

But Mrs. Plasvic later moderated her political platform. Early last year, she surrendered to the U.N. war crimes tribunal. In October, she pleaded guilty to charges of crimes against humanity.

Defense witness Milorad Dodik, a member of an opposition party in the early 1990s, argued Mrs. Plasvic appeared to distance herself from her own party and was frequently overruled. He also said she spent much time overseeing the situation of Bosnian Serb political refugees.

"I think that was her exclusive involvement. That is to say she dealt with humanitarian issues. And I can say with absolute certainty before this lofty tribunal that the sentiments during those days, months and years, was that Mrs. Plasvic in the leadership of Republica Srbska, in a political sense of the word, was completely marginalized," the witness said.

The sentencing hearing is scheduled to last through Wednesday. Among those expected to testify are former U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright, and Mrs. Plasvic herself. If found guilty, Mrs. Plasvic could face life in prison.