The former Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladić, nicknamed the ‘butcher of Bosnia’, has been sentenced to life imprisonment after being convicted of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.
More than 20 years after the Srebrenica massacre, Mladic was found guilty at the United Nations-backed international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague of 10 offences involving extermination, murder and persecution of civilian populations.
As he entered the courtroom, Mladić gave a broad smile and thumbs up to the cameras – a gesture that infuriated relatives of the victims. His defiance shifted into detachment as the judgment began: Mladić played with his fingers and nodded occasionally, looking initially relaxed.
The verdict was disrupted for more than half an hour when he asked the judges for a bathroom break. After he returned, defence lawyers requested that proceedings be halted or shortened because of his high blood pressure. The judges denied the request. Mladić then stood up shouting “this is all lies” and “I’ll fuck your mother”. He was forcibly removed from the courtroom. The verdicts were read in his absence.
Mladić removed from court after angry outburst – video
Mladić, 74, was chief of staff of Bosnian Serb forces from 1992 until 1996, during the ferocious civil wars and ethnic cleansing that followed the break-up of the Yugoslav state.
The one-time fugitive from international justice faced 11 charges, two of genocide, five of crimes against humanity and four of violations of the laws or customs of war. He was cleared of one count of genocide, but found guilty of all other charges. The separate counts related to “ethnic cleansing” operations in Bosnia, sniping and shelling attacks on besieged civilians in Sarajevo, the massacre of Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica and taking UN personnel hostage in an attempt to deter Nato airstrikes.
The trial in The Hague, which took 530 days across more than four years, is arguably the most significant war crimes case in Europe since the Nuremberg trials, in part because of the scale of the atrocities involved. Almost 600 people gave evidence for the prosecution and defence, including survivors of the conflict.
Delivering the verdicts, judge Alphons Orie said Mladić’s crimes “rank among the most heinous known to humankind and include genocide and extermination”.
Orie dismissed mitigation pleas by the defence that Mladić was of “good character”, had diminished mental capacity and was in poor physical health.
Relatives of victims flew into the Netherlands to attend the hearing, determined to see Mladić receive justice decades after the end of the war in which more than 100,000 people were killed.
Among those present was Fikret Alić, the Bosnian who was photographed as an emaciated prisoner behind the wire of a prison camp in 1992. “Justice has won and the war criminal has been convicted,” he said after the verdict. Others were reduced to tears by the judge’s description of past atrocities.
Fikret Alić holds a copy of Time magazine that featured his emaciated image on its cover in 1992. Photograph: Phil Nijhuis/AP
Mladić was one of the world’s most wanted fugitives before his arrest in 2011 in northern Serbia. He was transferred to the ICTY in the Netherlands, where he refused to enter a plea. A not guilty plea was eventually entered on his behalf. Through much of the trial in The Hague, he was a disruptive presence in court, heckling judges and on one occasion making a cut-throat gesture towards the mother of one of the 8,000 victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre.
Mladić was acquitted of only one charge, that of genocide in Bosnian municipalities outside Srebrenica. The chamber ruled that although he was part of a joint criminal enterprise to carry out mass killings there, which represented crimes against humanity, they did not rise to the level of genocide because the victims did not represent a substantial proportion of the Bosnian Muslim population of those municipalities.
The Bosnian Serb political leader, Radovan Karadžić, was also found not guilty of genocide in the municipalities. That tribunal verdict in 2016 triggered protests from Bosniaks, who wanted the court to acknowledge that genocide was committed across Bosnia, not just in Srebrenica.
In evaluating Mladić’s culpability for genocide, the court pointed to his command and control of the Bosnian Serb army and interior ministry forces, which carried out almost all of the killings, his presence in the area, and his frequent remarks about how the country’s Muslims could “disappear”.
Orie said: “The chamber found that the only reasonable inference was that the accused intended to destroy the Bosnian Muslim of Srebrenica as a substantial part of the protected group of Muslims in Bosnia Herzegovina.
“Accordingly, the chamber found the accused intended to carry out the Srebrenica joint criminal enterprises through the commission of the crime of genocide and was a member of the Srebrenica joint criminal enterprise.”
Ratko Mladić, the 'butcher of Bosnia' – video profile
Once Mladic has exhausted any appeals, he could, theoretically, be sent to the UK to serve out the rest of his life behind bars. Britain is one of the countries that has signed up to the tribunal’s agreement on the enforcement of sentences.
The UK has hosted other Serbian convicts sent on from the ICTY. In 2010, Radislav Krstić who was convicted at the Hague in 2001 for his part in the Srebrenica massacre, had his throat slashed in his cell at Wakefield prison by three Muslim inmates intent on revenge.
The former Liberian warlord Charles Taylor is also serving out his 50 year prison term in a UK jail.
Mladic will remain in the UN detention centre at Scheveningen, near the Hague, in the meantime. Any appeal will be dealt with by the successor court, the UN Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals.
The hearing, broadcast live, was followed closely in Bosnia. The Bosnian prime minister, Denis Zvizdić, said the verdict “confirmed that war criminals cannot escape justice regardless of how long they hide”.
In Lazarevo, the Serbian village where Mladić was arrested in 2011, residents dismissed the guilty verdicts as biased. One, Igor Topolic, said: “All this is a farce for me. He [Mladić] is a Serbian national hero.”
Mladić’s home village of Bozinovici retains a street named after the former general, where he is praised as a symbol of defiance and national pride.
The trial is one of the last to be heard by the ICTY, which is to be dissolved at the end of the year.
People, including victims, protest in front of the international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) prior to the verdict Photograph: John Thys/AFP/Getty Images
After the ruling, Serge Brammertz, the ICTY’s chief prosecutor, said it was not a verdict against all Serb people. “Mladić’s guilt is his and his alone,” he said.
Mladić’s defence lawyer, Dragan Ivetic, announced that he would appeal against the convictions.
In Geneva, the UN’s high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, described Mladić as the “epitome of evil” and said his conviction was a “momentous victory for justice”.
(c) 2017 The Guardian