THE HAGUE, Netherlands - Former Bosnian Serb President Biljana Plavsic, the first Balkan political leader to plead guilty to war crimes charges, faced justice, history and her country's collective denial in yesterday's opening of her extraordinary three-day sentencing hearing.
An academic and politician who incited ethnic hatred, consorted with warlords and earned the nickname the Iron Lady of the Balkans, Plavsic was a key public figure during the violent unraveling of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. She then switched political stripes and tried to make peace with the West.
Plavsic, 72, faces a maximum of life in prison after pleading guilty in October to crimes against humanity. The sentence is expected to be handed down early next year by a three-judge panel of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.
Yesterday's testimony melded two calamitous chapters of European history - ethnic cleansing in the Balkans and the Holocaust. Nobel Peace laureate, author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel spoke via video link from Paris.
"The act of bringing to light the reality of the crimes committed is as important as punishing their perpetrators," said Wiesel, who was asked to testify by both the prosecution and defense.
"More often than not, once in high government positions, those responsible for crimes against humanity rely on being able to use their evil power to mask and pervert the truth - if not bury it forever. They count on lies and, even more, on the knowledge that people forget."
With the courtroom hushed and the defendant's face ashen and frozen, Wiesel said of Plavsic: "How could she remain human in the face of such a betrayal of humanity?"
The question hung in the air, without an answer.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and Carl Bildt, the former U.N. high representative to Bosnia, are expected to testify as early as today..
Before the hearing began, Plavsic leaned over the defendant's desk, smiled and chatted amiably with the usually no-nonsense Swiss prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte.
Del Ponte, who has zealously gone after the likes of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, recounted the case against Plavsic and its importance in the tribunal's history.
She said Plavsic's admission of guilt "stands in sharp contrast to that of other leaders of the period, who either continue to deny that crimes occurred or who try to keep themselves beyond the reach of international justice."
"Reconciliation in the Balkans will not be achieved so long as denial persists," Del Ponte said.
Assistant prosecutor Mark Harmon said Plavsic entered a guilty plea to a crime with a scale that "is simply immense."
Bill Glauber writes for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.