The trial of General Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb army chief accused of orchestrating war crimes and a campaign of genocide, has begun at a special UN court at The Hague in the Netherlands.
Prosecutors at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia made their opening statements against Mladic on Wednesday almost a year after his arrest in Serbia and subsequent deportation after years on the run.
Mladic is accused of 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including orchestrating the week-long massacre of over 7,000 Muslim boys and men at Srebrenica in 1995 during the Bosnian war.
Prosecutor Dermot Groome said the prosecution would present evidence showing “beyond a reasonable doubt the hand of Mr. Mladic in each of these crimes”.
“The world watched in disbelief that in neighborhoods and villages within Europe a genocide appeared to be in progress,” said Groome, describing the beginning of the war in 1992.
“By the time Mladic and his troops murdered thousands in Srebrenica … they were well-rehearsed in the craft of murder,” Groome told the court.
Older but defiant
Dressed in a dark grey suit and dark tie, Mladic, now 70, flashed a thumbs-up and clapped his hands as he entered the courtroom in The Hague.
In the packed public seating area, a mother of one of the Srebrenica victims whispered “vulture” several times as prosecutors opened their case.
Munira Subasic, who lost 22 relatives in the Srebrenica massacre, claimed Mladic made a throat-slitting gesture towards her after she had held up both her hands, wrists crossed to indicate Mladic was in captivity.
Mladic’s lawyer, Branko Lukic, did not confirm her version of events, but claimed that somebody in the audience raised their middle finger at Mladic.
“He is very easily provoked and we had that gallery full of people very ready to provoke,” Lukic said.
Al Jazeera’s Barnaby Phillips, reporting from The Hague, said: “Ratko Mladic is clearly not the stocky, physically imposing, bullish man that we remember from images of the early ’90s,” but that even with his age, the general remained as defiant as ever.
“You could really sense his contempt for this court, which he calls the ‘NATO’ court,” he said.
Axel Hagedorn, a lawyer for many of the mothers of those killed in Srebrenica, said that many of his clients had travelled to The Hague, where they were relieved to finally see Mladic stand trial.
“I think he looks much more healthy than last year, when he appeared, that is good for us, because we hope that he can survive this trial and face imprisonment,” he said.
The Mladic trial would also help build a separate case by the Srebrenica families against the United Nations, he said.
In April, the Dutch Supreme Courht ruled that the UN could not be prosecuted in the Netherlands for failing to prevent genocide in Srebrenica, but the families’ lawyers plan to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.
“This case is very linked to our case, on the failure of the United Nations to protect the people of Srebrenica,” Hagedorn said.
There are concerns that Mladic’s trial could be disrupted by the defendant’s poor health. He is believed to have suffered at least one stroke while in hiding and was admitted to hospital for pneumonia last October.
Slobodan Milosevic, the former Serbian leader, died of a heart attack in detention in 2006 before a verdict in his trial could be reached.
Outside, protesters held up placards including one that said “we want justice for the victims of Srebrenica”.
Mladic, who was arrested in a village in northern Serbia last May, is also charged over the 44-month siege of Sarajevo during which more than 10,000 people died.
Mladic has refused to enter a plea and rejected the charges against him as “monstrous” and “obnoxious” in a preliminary hearing last June. He says he was defending his country and his people as leader of the Bosnian Serb army. The court entered a ‘not guilty’ plea on his behalf.
He is the last of the main protagonists involved in the 1990s wars in the former Yugoslavia to go on trial in front of the special court established by the United Nations to prosecute crimes committed during the conflicts.
“This is the biggest butcher of the Balkans and the world,” Munira Subasic, 65, told the AFP news agency. She lost 22 relatives to Bosnian Serb military forces when Srebrenica was overrun in July 1995.
“I’ll look into his eyes and ask him if he repents,” said Subasic, who said she would watch the trial’s opening from the public gallery at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
The case has stirred up deep emotions in the Balkans and Wednesday’s proceedings were broadcast live on big screens in Sarajevo, where thousands died between 1992 and 1995.
“I hope that many of those who are disillusioned and believe that Mladic is a Serb hero will change their minds, and that the trial will demonstrate that he was just a criminal and a coward,” Fikret Grabovica, president of the association of parents and children killed in the siege of Sarajevo, said.
“Even if Mladic lives until the verdict, it will bring only mild satisfaction for the victims of Srebrenica and hundreds of other places in the Serb Republic,” Grabovica added, referring to the entity that rules Serb majority areas of Bosnia.
Since the end of the war, Bosnia-Herzegovina has been divided into a federation of Bosnian Muslims and Croats, and the Serb Republic.
Mladic’s lawyers last week attempted to have the trial pushed back as the court pondered their request to have presiding judge Alphons Orie removed from the bench. They had argued that Orie would be biased against Mladic because he had already condemned several of his former subordinates.
But Theodor Meron, the president of the court, denied the request.
“I am not satisfied that Mladic has demonstrated that a reasonable observer … would reasonably apprehend bias. I accordingly find Mladic’s request for Judge Orie’s disqualification to be unmeritorious,” he said in a statement.
Mladic is being held in the same prison as his former political leader Radovan Karadzic, who was arrested in 2008 and is now about halfway through his trial on similar charges to Mladic.
Mladic’s lawyers on Monday night filed another request to have the trial adjourned for six months, saying they had not had enough time to prepare, due to “errors” by the prosecution in disclosing documents.
Groome said on Wednesday he would not oppose a “reasonable adjournment”.