War Crimes Tribunal Sentences Serb Leader
11:33 AM EST - June 29, 2004
The Associated Press
THE HAGUE, Netherlands
A U.N. war crimes tribunal on Tuesday sentenced Milan Babic, the leader of Croatia's rebellious Serbs, to 13 years in prison for inflaming an ethnic cleansing campaign filled with "ruthlessness and savagery."
Babic, 48, once one of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's closest allies, was convicted in January of one count of persecution for the seven-month campaign against non-Serbs in the self-proclaimed Croatian Republic of Krajina. Hundreds of civilians were executed or murdered and about 80,000 non-Serbs, mostly Croats and a few Muslims, were expelled.
Babic pleaded guilty to the single count in a deal in which prosecutors dropped four other charges of murder, cruelty and the wanton destruction of villages during the war in Croatia, which began when the Serbs revolted after Croatia broke away from Yugoslavia in 1991.
The crimes fit into a wider scheme by the Serb political leadership to clear out roughly one-third of Croatia's civilian population and create an ethnically pure Serbian state, the ruling said.
Babic was among the most influential figures of that policy, at the start of the 1991-1992 Croatian war, said the judgment, read out at the U.N. tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
The tribunal has rendered 50 judgments since it was created in 1993 by the U.N. Security Council. Most of those convicted have been soldiers, guards, midlevel military officers and a few commanders. Babic is among the highest-ranking political figures to be convicted, along with former Bosnian Serb politician Biljana Plavsic, who is serving an 11-year sentence in Denmark.
"Babic does not deny the seriousness of the crimes," said Judge Alphons Orie in issuing the sentence. "The crimes were characterized by ruthlessness and savagery and had a severe impact on victims and their relatives. Their suffering is still significant."
The sentence was harsher than the 11-year recommendation by the prosecution, which Orie said "does not achieve the purpose of punishment, nor does it do justice."
The court gave credit to Babic, a former dentist and head of a prewar health clinic, for voluntarily surrendering to the tribunal and testifying against Milosevic in what is considered the most important war crimes trial since World War II. The Milosevic case moves into its second half next week with the opening of the defense.
Detailing some of the worst offenses, Orie criticized the plea agreement between the prosecution and the defense for understating Babic's influence in Krajina as the president and the military's commander in chief.
"The trial chamber does not accept that Babic's role in the joint criminal enterprise was as limited as the parties suggest it was," the judgment said. Although "Babic was not the prime mover, ... Babic chose to remain in power and provided significant support for the persecutions."
Babic remained quiet after sentencing, but during his plea hearing in January, he begged forgiveness of the Croatian people, saying that he felt "a deep sense of shame and remorse."
"The persecutions caused the murder or extermination of hundreds of Croat or other non-Serb civilians ... They also caused the routine and prolonged imprisonment of hundreds of Croat and other non-Serb civilians," said the judgment read by Orie.
By giving "ethnically inflammatory" speeches and funding the armed Serb rebellion, Babic laid the foundation for the conflict in Croatia, which Orie said is still suffering the consequences.
By ANTHONY DEUTSCH Associated Press Writer