, BANJA LUKA, Oct 29 – Former Bosnian Serb president Biljana Plavsic, released early from a 11-year jail term for war crimes on Tuesday, made a remarkable turnaround from an apologist for ethnic cleansing to rehabilitated cooperator with the international community.
Known as the "Iron Lady" for her ruthless leadership, the former ally of wartime Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic was the most rabid nationalist who during the war publicly supported the campaign of persecutions of non-Serbs.
The Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) decided last month that Plavsic should be granted early release for good behaviour and apparent rehabilitation.
Plavsic was sentenced in February 2003 after she admitted playing a leading role in a campaign of persecution against Croats and Muslims during Bosnia’s 1992-95 war.
Muslim victims of the war voiced outrage last month at the decision to grant early release.
"It might be in line with international law, but it has nothing to do with justice," Murat Tahirovic, head of an association of Muslim and Croat war camp prisoners, told AFP.
"How can we explain this to children whose parents had been killed (in Serb-run camps), children who remember their parents only from photos," he said.
Plavsic, 79, once famously defended her purge of non-Serbs as "a natural phenomenon" and not a war crime.
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.
Instead of the 15 to 25 years the prosecution had requested, Plavsic was sentenced to 11 years for crimes against humanity including persecution, deportation, unlawful detention and cruel and inhuman treatment.
She is the highest ranking official of the former Yugoslavia to have acknowledged responsibility for the atrocities committed in the Balkan wars in the 1990s.
A widely-published photograph showed her in the first days of the Bosnian conflict, stepping over the body of a slain Muslim civilian to kiss the brutal Serbian warlord Zeljko Raznjatovic, known as Arkan, and hailing him as a great patriot.
Born on July 7, 1930, in Tuzla in northeast Bosnia, she was appointed to the chair of biology at Sarajevo University in 1956 and had a distinguished academic career before turning to politics.
She co-founded the Serbian National party in 1990 that she eventually went on to head.
After being in Karadzic’s inner circle during the war she abruptly changed alliances and turned increasingly pro-Western after the Dayton peace agreements were signed.
The Serbs, she said, had suffered "50 years of slavery under the Communists" and she became increasingly feted by the West as a relative moderate. She used this to seek reconstruction funds for the Bosnian Serbs’ moribund economy.
From Banja Luka, where she set up the capital of the Bosnian Serb entity in Bosnia far away from the nationalist stronghold in Pale, she led the opposition against her former hardline allies.
In 1997 she formed her own breakaway faction, the Serbian Popular Alliance. She began to withdraw from political life in the middle of 2000 after the party’s electoral setback in April local elections and resigned her seat in the Bosnian Serb parliament in December of the same year.
She gave herself up to UN tribunal in The Hague in January 2001 after she learned that she was the subject of a secret indictment.
Plavsic has served her sentence in a Swedish prison and under Sweden’s law became eligible for release on Tuesday, after serving two-thirds of her term.