Bosnian Serb ex-leader Biljana Plavsic returned to her home in Serbia from a prison in Sweden after a UN court granted her early release from an 11-year jail sentence for war crimes.
Plavsic, 79, landed shortly after 2:00 pm (1300 GMT) at Belgrade airport and immediately left for her apartment in the Serbian capital, accompanied by Bosnian Serb Prime Minister Milorad Dodik.
Upon arriving at her home, Plavsic, who also has Serbian citizenship, briefly said she would spend some time with her brother and sister-in-law, B92 television reported.
Happy to be free
“I am happy to be free after nine years,” she said, adding that she would “soon” talk to the press.
Dressed in a dark brown fur coat, a smiling Plavsic waived a kiss to journalists and briefly greeted several people who were waiting in front of the apartment building in central Belgrade.
The release caused an immediate backlash in neighbouring Bosnia. The Croat chairman of the country’s tripartite presidency Zeljko Komsic cancelled a November 4-8 official visit to Sweden in protest.
“The Swedish government released Plavsic because it wanted to and not because it had to,” Komsic said in a statement released in Sarajevo.
The decision is “particularly unacceptable and embarrassing” as Foreign Minister Carl Bildt had acted as a witness for Plavsic’s defence, visited her in prison and took part in the decision on her release, he said.
Protests get extreme
Around 30 prisoners sewed their lips together in a protest at Bosnia’s top security jail in the central town of Zenica.
The prisoners, jailed for various criminal offences, were protesting Plavsic’s early release while they were “deprived of that right for a number of years already,” the prison said on its website.
Plavsic is the highest ranking official of the former Yugoslavia to have acknowledged responsibility for atrocities committed in the Balkan wars of the 1990s.
She was sentenced in February 2003 to 11 years behind bars after she admitted playing a leading role in a campaign of persecution against Croats and Muslims during Bosnia’s 1992-95 war, which claimed about 100,000 lives and forced some 2.2 million people from their homes.
Plavsic served her sentence at a women’s prison in Sweden, where the government last week confirmed she would become eligible for release on Tuesday after serving two-thirds of her term, in accordance with Swedish law.
She gave herself up to the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague in January 2001 after she learned that she was the subject of a secret indictment for genocide, extermination, murder, persecution, deportation and inhumane acts.
Plavsic struck a plea
Plavsic struck a plea agreement with prosecutors in October 2002 in which she “admitted to supporting and contributing to achieving the objective of the permanent removal of ethnic populations by force.”
The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) announced in September that she would be eligible for early release from Sweden’s Hinseberg prison after she expressed remorse and a report showed she had “exhibited good behaviour” in prison.
“She has participated in the institution’s walks and she also occupies herself by cooking and baking,” it said.
Earlier this week, Plavsic’s sister-in-law Vasilija Plavsic told B92 radio the former Bosnian Serb president would not return to politics upon release.
“I do not believe she would return to the political scene. She wants to spend her late years in peace and quietness,” the sister-in-law said.
Known as the “Iron Lady” for her ruthless leadership, the former ally of wartime Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic was a fiery nationalist who during the war publicly supported the campaign of persecutions of non-Serbs.
But the former biology professor underwent an extraordinary pragmatic conversion in 1996, which saw her cooperate with the international community, turning the tables on her mentor Karadzic — now on trial for genocide — who was forced to resign.
It was this post-war conduct together with her surprise guilty plea to the tribunal that the judges considered to be seriously mitigating circumstances.
Her release came on the second day of Karadzic’s genocide trial in The Hague which the 64-year-old has so far boycotted, demanding more time to prepare his defence.