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War Crimes Prosecutors Want Long Prison Sentence for Ex-Bosnia President - 2002-12-18

Prosecutors in The Hague have asked the U.N. war crimes tribunal for a 15-25 year jail term for former Bosnian Serb president Biljana Plavsic, who pleaded guilty to leading a campaign of ethnic cleansing during the Bosnian war.

Chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte said she would have sought a sentence of life imprisonment if there had been no guilty plea. She credited the former Bosnian Serb leader with helping to implement the 1995 Dayton peace accord on Bosnia despite threats against her life. But the prosecutor said she would have reduced the recommended sentence further if Ms. Plavsic had agreed to testify in other war crimes cases.

Defense lawyers however said that even an eight-year sentence for the 72-year-old defendant amounted to a life term. For her part Ms. Plavsic asked the court to seek "whatever justice this world can offer."

Once known as the Iron lady of the Balkans, the former Bosnian Serb president is the most senior official from the former Yugoslavia to plead guilty to crimes against humanity. Ms. Plavsic told the court Tuesday that the fear of becoming victims prompted the nation's wartime leaders to become victimizers in the brutal 1992-1995 conflict in Bosnia.

She acknowledged responsibility for her role in the Serb campaign of ethnic cleansing against Muslims and Croats in Bosnia. But she stopped short of a direct apology to the victims.

Among the witnesses at the three-day hearing were former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel and ex-Balkans envoy Carl Bildt.

Mrs. Albright testified that the killings, rapes, deportations and brutal camps of the Bosnian war were reminders of events in World War II. Mr. Wiesel questioned how Ms. Plavsic could remain human in the face of such a betrayal of humanity.

The former Bosnian Serb president initially pleaded innocent to many counts of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes after surrendering to The Hague tribunal in January 2001. However, in October she changed her plea to guilty on one count of persecution and said she was filled with remorse. Other counts were dropped and she avoided a prolonged trial.

Ms. Plavsic is the highest-ranking figure to admit to atrocities and the only woman publicly indicted by the Hague tribunal. The judges' decision is to be delivered at a later date.