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American Plea Bargains Infect U.N. War Crimes Tribunal

by Kirsten Anderberg Thursday, Nov. 27, 2003 at 8:45 PM Seattle, Wa USA

The notorious plea bargain system that plagues the American "justice" and jail systems, is now moving to the United Nations' war crimes tribunal, under pressure from the Bush administration...


by Kirsten Anderberg Copyright 2003

The notorious plea bargain system that plagues the American "justice" and jail systems, is now moving to the United Nations' war crimes tribunal. There is a backlog of cases regarding war crimes in the Balkans in the 1990's, so the U.N. is "suddenly rushing" through this backlog, by reducing sentences in exchange for "cooperation" and guilty pleas, according to the NYTimes (11/18/2003 front page). The new plea bargaining going on at the U.N. tribunal is a response to the Bush Administration, which pays a quarter of the tribunal's budget. The Bush administration is impatient, and has demanded that the Balkan case investigations end by next year, and all of the trials conclude by 2008. P.R.Prosper, the Bush administration's ambassador for war crimes issues, is pressuring the U.N. courts with new rules, such as limits to the scope of prosecution evidence and allowing written testimony, as well as a new "exit strategy." The new exit strategy resembles the American response to its own overcrowded jail and justice systems. The usual triage now happening in American "justice," is now playing out in the tribunal. They are taking the inmates held the longest, for the worst suspected crimes, and streamlining them into a plea bargain process. Those identified as less threatening criminals would be redirected back to the lower courts. 62 investigations are now suspended at the tribunal to focus on a few senior inmates.

Between 1996 and 2003, 16 defendants plead guilty at the tribunal. Eight of those 16 guilty pleas came after May 2003, once the plea bargain system was instituted. Defense lawyers are celebratory, and one said "We're seeing a snowball effect..." regarding these guilty pleas made via plea bargain. P. Banovic plead guilty on Oct. 28, 2003, to killing 5 inmates and beating 27 others at the prison camp Keraterm. His plea bargain arranged for his jail sentencing to be reduced to 8 years, which could be 6 years with good behavior. Yet low-level guards from similar prison camps, who did not plead guilty, received 20 years in prison. In Banovic's case, Judge P. Robinson wrote a dissent that said these war criminals deserved longer terms of imprisonment, but since all appeal rights are waived in plea bargaining, the sentencing stands regardless of this dissent. One of the really underhanded parts of plea bargains is they contain a clause where you give up all rights to appeal a case after a plea bargain. I think this accompanies plea bargains because they are so corrupt and open to suspicion, that the only way to make them stand, is to ban all re-examination of them from the get-go.

Prosecutors are hailing the new tribunal rules as a victory, citing fast processing and confessions (made under duress) as new evidence, as the prizes of the new system. Yet high court officials at the tribunal are shocked. Victim rights groups are outraged. Legal experts and judges are saying this rush to empty the dockets could undermine the credibility of the tribunal. One lawyer said he wondered if the rush to complete the workload would override the interest of justice. Judge David Hunt, an appeals judge in the Hague, and former Supreme Court judge in Australia, is angry at this strategy and has said that the tribunal would not be judged by how many cases it processed, or how fast they were processed, "but by the fairness of its trials." Judge Hunt said he objected to the plea bargains because they favored the prosecution, not the accused. Judge Hunt said these plea bargains "will leave a spreading stain on this tribunal's reputation." Judge Hunt is retiring in November, so perhaps that aided his stoic honesty, but he said he felt obliged to criticize the new trend of judges assisting prosecutors, to speed up case processing.

American lawyers ON THE PROSECUTION STAFF proposed the new plea bargaining system to the U.N. war tribunal. The NYTimes reports a "senior prosecution official asking not to be identified" said, "Facilitating guilty pleas certainly makes sense from a management standpoint." I find it very interesting that this official did not want to be identified. Why would he hide his identity when talking about plea bargains at the tribunal? There is a black cloud that hangs over the American, British and Canadian plea bargain systems, and everyone knows it. As Judge Hunt pointed out, plea bargains allow judges to work unfairly with prosecution as one team, and the system is slanted towards the prosecution, not the accused. Judge T. Meron is the tribunal president, but he is from the United States, and is arguing he sees nothing wrong with the plea bargain system he was trained in, and practiced while an American lawyer and judge. He claimed the tribunal's switch to plea bargains was a "coming of age" for the tribunal. Those trying to justify this new plea bargain system defend the means by the end. They claim they are receiving tips and details about crimes, due to plea bargains. This plea bargaining is a hot topic in the U.N. jail, which holds 51 inmates, including S. Milosevic.

But this dissent occurring at the U.N. tribunal over plea bargaining should also be going on in American courthouses and jails. As anyone can see, plea bargains have an element of darkness to them. They are coerced statements, made under bullying duress. There is not an arm's length bargaining in any way. Many plea bargains are made under the threat of their lives being taken, such as in the Green River Murderer case. Ridgway was facing the death sentence, and plea bargained to save his life. Senior prosecutors do not want their names used when talking about plea bargains to the NYTimes. The courts believe so little in the validity of the plea bargain system that they ban all recourse and appeal as an integral part of plea bargaining. Plea bargaining will certainly undermine the credibility of the U.N. war crimes tribunal. It already has raised eyebrows due to the 8 guilty pleas since May 2003. Let's not spread this plea bargain disease to the U.N. Plea bargaining does not serve justice or the accused in America, it serves prosecution and management. Judge Hunt's critiques of the U.N. plea bargaining system can be applied to all U.S. courts too. America long ago sacrificed fairness and justice regarding criminal courts, for favors to the prosecution and to streamline costs. It is truly a sad day we have come to, where this demon now infects the U.N. tribunal. Now all of the tribunal's guilty pleas are suspect to coersion, just like all American guilty pleas begotten through plea bargains.

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