THE HAGUE – Former Bosnian Serb army commander Ratko Mladic went on trial accused of carrying out a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing and Europe’s worst massacre since World War II.
Mladic’s trial opened at the Yugoslav war crimes court in The Hague, also watched in a live broadcast in Sarajevo by widows and other relatives of victims of the 1995 massacre at Srebrenica where almost 8,000 Muslim men and boys were allegedly murdered by Mladic’s forces.
“Ratko Mladic assumed the mantle of the criminal goal of ethnically cleansing Bosnia,” prosecutor Dermot Groome told International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
Now 70, Mladic has been indicted on 11 counts of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role in the Balkan country’s brutal 1992-95 war that killed 100,000 people and left 2.2 million homeless.
“The prosecution will present evidence that will show without reasonable doubt the hand of Mr Mladic in each of these crimes,” Groome said.
Mladic, dressed in a dark grey suit and patterned tie, sarcastically applauded judges as they entered the courtroom, but was not asked to speak during the hearing.
Before the television cameras started rolling, Mladic made a “throat-slitting” towards the public gallery where victims’ relatives were seated, said one widow of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre.
“At one moment, Mladic looked towards the public. I think he has recognized us, the women of Srebrenica, and then made a gesture moving his hand over the throat, meaning ‘I will slit your throat’,” Munira Subasic told AFP.
Subasic heads the “Mothers of Srebrenica” organisation representing widows and victims of the Srebrenica massacre when 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed by Mladic’s troops in July 1995.
Nerma Jelacic, the UN tribunal’s spokeswoman, told Serbian state agency merely that “there has been a communication between the defendant and people at the gallery.”
The former Bosnian Serb commander had pleaded not guilty to the charges at an earlier court hearing last June. He faces life imprisonment if convicted.
In his opening address, the prosecutor displayed population maps showing the ethnic distribution in Bosnia before and after the war, explaining how mixed or predominantly Muslim municipalities became exclusively Serbian after a campaign of ethnic cleansing he said was one of Mladic’s “strategic objectives”.
Groome said the very first objective had been to “separate the Serbs from the other two national communities” — Bosnians and Croats.
“Thousands of families were forced from their land,” Groome added, as he told the court how groups of non-Serbs were executed and others forced to jump from a bridge by soldiers under Mladic’s command.
Presiding judge Alphons Orie warned both Mladic and people sitting in the public gallery not to make eye contact during the trial when several comments including the word “vulture” were uttered.
Prosecutors also hold Mladic responsible for the 44-month siege of Sarajevo where his forces waged a “terror campaign” of sniping and shelling that left an estimated 10,000 people dead, the vast majority of them civilians.
“Sarajevo was a model of diversity, a cosmopolitan city,” said Groome.
“They (Bosnian Serb leaders) sought to destroy it, to sever the city in half, with the Serbs living in one part and the non-Serbs in another part.”
It was in pursuit of a “Greater Serbia” that Mladic allegedly also ordered his troops to “cleanse” other Bosnian towns, driving out Croats, Muslims and other non-Serbs.
After the war, Mladic continued his military career but went into hiding in 2000 after the fall of his ally in Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic.
Indicted for war crimes, he was on the run until May 2011 when he was arrested at a relative’s house in Lazarevo, northeastern Serbia and flown to a prison in The Hague several days later.
Two days ahead of the trial, his lawyers filed a request for a six-month adjournment, saying they needed more time to prepare a defence.
The judge said Wednesday the court was still considering whether to postpone the case, on the grounds that the prosecution made a “significant error” which could affect the course of the trial.
During a string of pre-trial hearings, the former general complained of his poor health and asked Orie if he could wear his military uniform.
Defence lawyer Branko Lukic said Mladic suffered three strokes in 1996, 2008 and 2011 and was partly paralysed on his right side.
Mladic however appeared in better shape than at his first appearance last June when he told the court he was a “sick man”.
Lukic told journalists Wednesday that Mladic had had extensive medical and dental surgery since his capture, saying “he lost a lot of teeth” during his years as a fugitive.
At the end of the first day’s hearing, Lukic said “the prosecution has to tell the story and the story is of course very ugly… Our task is to show what they say is not true.”
The trial was due to continue on Thursday, before resuming on May 29.