Ratko Mladic led ethnic cleansing, war crimes trial told

 

BBC's Mike Wooldridge: "The prosecutor said Ratko Mladic was implementing a plan to exterminate non-Serbs"

Former Bosnian Serb army commander Ratko Mladic intended to "ethnically cleanse" Bosnia, the opening day of his war crimes trial has heard.

Gen Mladic faces 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including genocide, in connection with the brutal 1992-95 Bosnian war.

Prosecutors in The Hague said they would show his hand in the crimes.

He has called the accusations "monstrous" and the court has entered a not guilty plea on his behalf.

Gen Mladic is accused of orchestrating the massacre of more than 7,000 Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) boys and men at Srebrenica in 1995.

He is also charged in connection with the 44-month siege of Sarajevo during which more than 10,000 people died.

'Criminal endeavour'

Gen Mladic, dressed in a dark grey suit, applauded and gave a thumbs-up as the judges walked in.

Analysis

The 70-year-old sitting in the dock is physically diminished from the swaggering war leader we knew 20 years ago; but he's as proud and defiant as ever.

Mladic gestured, briefly, toward the public gallery, offering a sarcastic slow hand clap, and holding up a book he had with him - apparently a history of the Bosnian Serrb Army that he once commanded so notoriously.

He caught the eye of one of the Bosnian women, who gestured to him. He responded by drawing his finger across his throat in a gesture that seemed dismissive and contemptuous rather than threatening before more mundanely asking the judge for bathroom break. The judge warned him to focus on what was happening in court and refrain from inappropriate communication with the public gallery.

Otherwise, the man who for 15 years was the world's most elusive, most wanted war crimes suspect, sat quietly taking notes, saying nothing.

The war the prosecution described was not one of ancient ethnic hatreds. It was a carefully planned criminal enterprise that was well orchestrated, centrally directed and state-sponsored.

We heard Gen Mladic's voice, from a recording in 1993, boasting that "every time I go by Sarajevo, I kill someone in passing. I kick the hell out of the Turks [offensive term for Bosniaks]."

It was, for a moment - in the still forensic calm of the courtroom - a reminder of the terror that once prevailed in Bosnia, and of the violent abandon with which the aim of building an ethnically pure Serb state was pursued.

The prosecution opened the hearing at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) with an audio-visual presentation laying out the case against Gen Mladic.

Prosecuting counsel Dermot Groome said they would prove Gen Mladic's hand in the crimes.

"Four days ago marked two decades since Ratko Mladic became the commander of the main staff of the army of Republika Srpska - the VRS," he said.

"On that day, Mladic began his full participation in a criminal endeavour that was already in progress. On that day, he assumed the mantle of realising through military might the criminal goals of ethnically cleansing much of Bosnia. On that day, he commenced his direct involvement in serious international crimes."

Mr Groome said that by the time Gen Mladic and his troops had "murdered thousands in Srebrenica", they were "well-rehearsed in the craft of murder".

He then showed judges video of the aftermath of a notorious shelling of a market in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo, in which dozens of people died.

Mr Groome said there was "no doubt" that Gen Mladic had controlled the shelling of Sarajevo. He had promised that the city would shake, the prosecutor said.

Mr Groome said the attacks were part of an "overarching" plan to ethnically cleanse non-Serbs from parts of Bosnia.

Gen Mladic has been awaiting trial in the same prison as his former political leader Radovan Karadzic, who was arrested in 2008 and is now about half-way through his trial on similar charges to Gen Mladic.

The charges

  • Counts 1/2: Genocide of Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) and Bosnian Croats in Bosnia-Hercegovina and Srebrenica
  • Count 3: Persecutions
  • Counts 4/5/6: Extermination and murder
  • Counts 7/8: Deportation and inhumane acts
  • Counts 9/10: Terror and unlawful attacks
  • Count 11: Taking of UN hostages

Mr Groome said Radovan Karadzic's choice of Gen Mladic was not random but because he could help to achieve the strategic goals of Bosnian Serbs.

At one point, presiding Judge Alphons Orie told Gen Mladic to focus on the court proceedings and not take part in "inappropriate interaction" with people in the public gallery.

Mr Groome said crimes of sexual violence had played an integral part of the process of "taking over and ethnically cleansing Bosnia".

"While women were most often targeted for such crimes of terrible violation, men were also victims," he said.

In the third and final session of the day, the prosecution highlighted the role of snipers in Sarajevo, showing images of a child shot dead on a street and pictures taken from sniper nests overlooking the besieged city.

The trial was later adjourned until Thursday.

During the proceedings, members of the Mothers of Srebrenica group held a vigil outside the court.

A Bosniak survivor of the Serb-run detention camps at Omarska and Manjaca in northern Bosnia said he was glad to be at the opening day of Gen Mladic's trial.

Relatives of victims outside the court in The Hague. 16 May 2012 Relatives of Srebrenica victims gathered outside the court as the trial began

"It's the first time I've seen this man, today, the man responsible for genocide and war crimes in Bosnia-Hercegovina together with Karadzic as political leader," Satko Mujagic told the BBC.

"To be able to see him where he belongs and especially because of my own history being detained completely illegally as a civilian young boy in Omarska and Manjaca for 200 days."

Judicial authorities have rejected defence calls to delay proceedings, most recently a petition to have Dutch Judge Orie replaced on grounds of alleged bias.

However, even as the trial began, there were further indications it would be delayed.

Judge Orie said the court was considering postponing the presentation of evidence - due to start on 29 May - due to "errors" by the prosecution in disclosing evidence to the defence.

Mr Groome said he would not oppose a "reasonable adjournment".

Gen Mladic spent 15 years on the run before being apprehended by Serb forces last May and sent to The Hague.

The number of crimes of which he stands accused has been almost halved to speed up his trial.

Outbursts

Gen Mladic is accused of committing genocide and other crimes against Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) and Bosnian Croats in a campaign of ethnic cleansing that began in 1992 and climaxed in Srebrenica in 1995.

Counsel Dermot Groome: "The indictment against Mladic charges crimes of sexual violence"

Then, Serb fighters overran the Srebrenica enclave in eastern Bosnia - supposedly under the protection of Dutch UN peacekeepers. Men and boys were separated off, shot dead and bulldozed into mass graves - later to be dug up and reburied in more remote spots.

These were the worst atrocities in Europe since the end of World War II.

Pre-trial hearings have been characterised by ill-tempered outbursts from Gen Mladic, who has heckled the judge and interrupted proceedings.

"The whole world knows who I am," he said at a hearing last year.

"I am General Ratko Mladic. I defended my people, my country... now I am defending myself."

The case has stirred up strong emotions among watching survivors, with some shouting "murderer" and "killer" from the court gallery.

However, while Gen Mladic's critics consider him a butcher, to some Serbs he is a national hero.

Gen Mladic suffered at least one stroke while in hiding and remains in frail health.

The architect of the Balkan wars, former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, died in detention in his cell in 2006, before receiving a verdict.

War in the former Yugoslavia 1991 - 1999

The former Yugoslavia was a Socialist state created after German occupation in World War II and a bitter civil war. A federation of six republics, it brought together Serbs, Croats, Bosnian Muslims, Albanians, Slovenes and others under a comparatively relaxed communist regime. Tensions between these groups were successfully suppressed under the leadership of President Tito.
After Tito's death in 1980, tensions re-emerged. Calls for more autonomy within Yugoslavia by nationalist groups led in 1991 to declarations of independence in Croatia and Slovenia. The Serb-dominated Yugoslav army lashed out, first in Slovenia and then in Croatia. Thousands were killed in the latter conflict which was paused in 1992 under a UN-monitored ceasefire.
Bosnia, with a complex mix of Serbs, Muslims and Croats, was next to try for independence. Bosnia's Serbs, backed by Serbs elsewhere in Yugoslavia, resisted. Under leader Radovan Karadzic, they threatened bloodshed if Bosnia's Muslims and Croats - who outnumbered Serbs - broke away. Despite European blessing for the move in a 1992 referendum, war came fast.
Yugoslav army units, withdrawn from Croatia and renamed the Bosnian Serb Army, carved out a huge swathe of Serb-dominated territory. Over a million Bosnian Muslims and Croats were driven from their homes in ethnic cleansing. Serbs suffered too. The capital Sarajevo was besieged and shelled. UN peacekeepers, brought in to quell the fighting, were seen as ineffective.
International peace efforts to stop the war failed, the UN was humiliated and over 100,000 died. The war ended in 1995 after NATO bombed the Bosnian Serbs and Muslim and Croat armies made gains on the ground. A US-brokered peace divided Bosnia into two self-governing entities, a Bosnian Serb republic and a Muslim-Croat federation lightly bound by a central government.
In August 1995 the Croatian army stormed areas in Croatia under Serb control prompting thousands to flee. Soon Croatia and Bosnia were fully independent. Slovenia and Macedonia had already gone. Montenegro left later. In 1999 Kosovo's ethnic Albanians fought Serbs in another brutal war to gain independence. Serbia ended the conflict beaten, battered and alone.
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