Croatian Serb war criminal commits suicide at Hague jail

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The former Croatian Serb leader Milan Babic, who admitted war crimes and gave evidence against former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, has been found dead in his prison cell, apparently after committing suicide.

Babic, who was serving a 13-year sentence for crimes against humanity, was found dead on Sunday evening at the UN's special detention unit in Scheveningen, a suburb of The Hague.

Although he had been serving his sentence abroad, Babic, 50, returned to the tribunal last month to testify against his successor as Croatian Serb leader, Milan Martic.

As leader, Babic found himself in a pivotal position in 1991 when the Serbian minority revolted against Croatia's decision to quit Yugoslavia. While he dominated the political landscape in Krajina, non-Serbs in the region were subjected to savage persecution.

After fleeing with his family to Belgrade in 1995, Babic surrendered voluntarily to the authorities in The Hague, eventually admitting one serious war crimes charge.

The UN tribunal did not say precisely how the prisoner died but said Dutch medical experts had "confirmed that the cause of death was suicide". Serbian media reported that the cause of death was probably hanging.

Since his decision to testify against Mr Milosevic as part of a plea-bargain arrangement, Babic had been living in fear of reprisals. The sentencing judgment against him in June 2004 noted that "because of his co-operation with the Tribunal, Babic and his family live in fear of violent retribution from those who view them as traitors and they will never be able to return to their homeland".

Babic was a key witness for the prosecution. In three weeks of testimony in the Milosevic trial in 2002, Babic provoked angry exchanges accusing the former Yugoslav president of failing to protect the Serbs. "You dragged the Serb people into war," he said, adding that Milosevic had. "brought shame on the Serbs".

Milosevic, Babic argued, played a key political and military role behind the scenes and had "pulled the strings" of the Krajina Serbs.

Two years later Babic's own case came to court. Initially indicted on five charges, his plea agreement with the prosecutor meant admitting the charge of being a co-perpetrator in "persecutions on political, racial and religious grounds". The remaining allegations, including murder, cruel treatment and wanton destruction of villages were dismissed.

During his hearing Babic accepted his role in fomenting ethnic cleansing during the Balkan wars of the 1990s. He told the tribunal he felt a "deep sense of shame and remorse" that he had allowed himself "to take part in the worst kind of persecution of people simply because they were Croats and not Serbs".

He added: "Innocent people were persecuted; innocent people were evicted forcibly from their houses; and innocent people were killed.

"Even when I learnt what had happened, I kept silent. Even worse, I continued in my office, and I became personally responsible for the inhumane treatment of innocent people."

He added: "These crimes and my participation therein can never be justified. I'm speechless when I have to express the depth of my remorse for what I have done and for the effect that my sins have had on the others."