Former Croatian Serb Leader Pleads Guilty


By Arthur Max

Associated Press
January 27, 2004

Wartime Croatian Serb leader Milan Babic pleaded guilty on Tuesday to persecution in a plan to ethnically cleanse parts of Croatia of non-Serbs at the outset of the Balkan wars, and expressed "a deep sense of shame" for his crimes. In exchange for Babic's guilty plea, prosecutors agreed to drop four other charges of war crimes. But the three-judge tribunal hearing the case in The Hague, Netherlands, said it would rule later on whether to accept the deal. The judges had earlier rejected a first draft of the plea agreement, which charged Babic with "aiding and abetting a joint criminal enterprise." Apparently at the judges' urging, the latest agreement stiffed the charge to name Babic as co-perpetrator in the crimes, but still absolved him of any prior criminal intent. As part of the bargain, Babic agreed to cooperate in other war crimes trials and already has appeared as a prosecution witness in the case against former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, who was named as a coconspirator in Babic's indictment. In a statement to the judges, Babic said he stood before them "with a deep sense of shame and remorse" for his part in the murder and persecution of thousands of non-Serbs in a plot to create a new Serb-dominated state on one-third of Croatian territory. "My regret is the pain I have to live the rest of my life," he said. "I ask my brother Croats to forgive us, their brother Serbs," and appealed to other Serbs to acknowledge the wrongs committed against their neighbors. Babic became president of the breakaway Republic of Krajina when the Serb minority revolted after Croatia broke away from Yugoslavia in 1991. But he soon fell out with Belgrade and was sacked at the urging of Milosevic, then the president of the Republic of Serbia, in 1992. He remained in politics until 1995, when he reportedly fled to Serbia and lived in a Belgrade suburb. Babic faces up to life in prison, but the prosecution recommended an 11-year sentence. The defense had no immediate recommendation. As part of the agreement, Babic signed a lengthy confession acknowledging that he was aware of the forced eviction and persecution of Croats, that he helped spread pro-Serb propaganda, and that he helped acquire weapons and distribute them to Serb population. More than 78,000 Croats and about 2,000 Muslims lived in Krajina in 1991, but within a year virtually the entire non-Serb population "was forcibly removed, deported or killed," Babic's initial indictment said. While admitting he knew non-Serb civilians were dying in the war, Babic said he was unaware of the deliberate murder of hundreds of people, and had no knowledge of crimes while they were being committed. The judges questioned both the prosecution and the defense lawyers closely about how much Babic knew and when. Prosecuting attorney Hildegaard Uertz-Rezlaff spoke up in his defense, saying the prosecution had evidence to support Babic's contention that he learned of the execution of Croat civilians "only years later."

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