General Ratko Mladic, known as the ‘Butcher of Bosnia’, was as expected found guilty and sentenced to life in jail for genocide and several other crimes committed during the bloody 1992-1995 Bosnian war when he was commander of the Bosnian Serb army. However, in a ruling delivered on November 22 he was found not guilty of genocide across Bosnia & Herzegovina, a conclusion that has angered Bosnian Muslims.
Mladic was indicted on two counts of genocide – across Bosnia & Herzegovina and in Srebrenica, five counts of crimes against humanity and four counts of violations of the laws or customs of war in the most significant war crimes trial in Europe since the Nuremberg tribunal.
“For having committed these crimes the chamber has sentenced him to life in prison,” judge Alphons Orie said at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague.
The Srebrenica killings were conducted under the command of Mladic, former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic’s military chief. Some 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were killed and 25,000 women and children were deported from the UN-designated ‘safe area’ of Srebrenica.
Last year, The Hague tribunal sentenced Karadzic to 40 years in jail after finding him guilty of genocide and nine other charges, but he was acquitted by the tribunal of a broader charge of genocide in connection with Bosnian municipalities.
As the trial, which has lasted more than four years, reached its conclusion, Mladic sat silently while the judge read the council’s conclusions, but his facial expression showed his disagreement and he tapped his face with his fingers.
As Mladic had asked to go to the toilet, the judge gave a five minute break, which had to be extended as the defendant had not returned to courtroom. Finally, after the session was resumed, Mladic’s lawyer has asked for a postponement or shorter announcement of the verdict, claiming that Mladic’s blood pressure was dangerously high.
After Orie refused, claiming that doctors’ assessments did not suggest that the defendant’s health was endangered, Mladic stood up yelling in Serbian “It’s a lie!” He refused to stop shouting and the judge ordered his removal from the courtroom. He was then placed in another room where he was able to watch and listen to the verdict.
During the trial that took 530 days spread over more than four years, video recordings were shown of Mladic giving orders to his troops as the army-age Bosnian Muslim (Bosniak) men and teenage boys were separated from their families, shortly before the executions in Srebrenica began.
The ICTY heard from 591 witnesses and examined nearly 10,000 exhibits concerning 106 separate crimes.
There were strong reactions within Bosnia, with Bosniak women who lost their loved ones in the Sarajevo killings crying after hearing the sentence, but also expressing their disappointment that Mladic was not found guilty of genocide in the rest of the country.
Munira Subasic, the chairwoman of Mothers of Srebrenica, said that now that the genocide has officially been recognised, the NGO will sue Serbia and Republika Srpska, Bosnia's Serb entity.
The leader of the Bosniak Alliance for Better Future (SBB) Fahrudin Radoncic said he regrets that Mladic was not sentenced to death.
“This is a historic sentence. All monstrous crimes have been confirmed, the genocide in Srebrenica, the four-year siege of Sarajevo and other brutal attacks on Bosniaks. But I think that it was a historical damage that Mladic was not sentenced for genocide in the municipalities of Kljuc, Kotor Varos, Sanski Most, Prijdor, Vlasenica and Foca,” Radoncic was quoted by Klix.ba as saying.
The international community hailed the verdict as just. “The murderer of Srebrenica has been brought to justice. Those who value the rule of law in war will welcome this. Those who bled in the Bosnian wars have retribution. Those in Bosnia who understand there is no peace without justice can now look more confidently to the future,” said former UN envoy Paddy Ashdown in a Twitter post.
The US embassy in Bosnia also issued a statement, urging all parties to respect the court’s verdict and to “rededicate themselves to the continued reconciliation and peaceful coexistence”.
“Mladic is the epitome of evil, and the prosecution of Mladic is the epitome of what international justice is all about,” Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in a statement.
But while for Bosniaks Mladic is the personification of evil, he is still looked up to by many Bosnian Serbs. Residents of several Bosnian cities, including Srebrenica, woke up on November 22 to see posters hailing Mladic as a hero, and after the verdict was announced Bosnian Serb leaders claimed it once again showed that there was no justice for them.
“This sentence is a slap in the face of the Serb people and for Serb people. General Ratko Mladic is a hero who prevented genocide against Serbs in BiH and Croatia,” Republika Srpska’s President Milorad Dodik told the media.
Bosnian Serb politicians also said that the verdict will further separate the entities in the country and will raise tensions in the already very unstable country, in which Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats live in two autonomous entities – the Muslim-Croat Federation and Republika Srpska.
Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic that “it is not day neither for joy nor for sorrow, but to think what we want from future”, b92 reported.
“Let’s not bow heads to anyone, but go to the future, to think where and how we and our children shall live, how we shall protect peace and stability in the region. […] Serbia has always respected the victims of other peoples, I am not sure that others have shown this kind of piety to ours. And this is our job,” Vucic said.
Mladic was first indicted in 1995 but Nato troops did not arrest him immediately after the war ended, fearing this could only be achieved with a major battle and significant bloodshed. In 1997, when international forces started hunting war criminals, Mladic went into hiding and eventually went to Serbia where he was allegedly protected by the army.
He was finally arrested in 2011, after the EU put serious pressure on Serbia to deliver him as a condition for considering financial aid and eventual talks on EU membership with the country.
Mladic’s trial began in 2012. He declined to plead and the court pleaded not guilty on his behalf. The Bosnian Serb military leader is allegedly in poor health and his lawyers have made attempts to persuade the tribunal to send him to Serbia for medical treatment, as well as to postpone the sentence hearing.
The Bosnian war broke out after Bosniaks and Croats voted for independence from the former Yugoslav federation in a 1992 referendum boycotted by Serbs, which wanted to stay part of former Yugoslavia.
The Hague tribunal has already convicted 15 people for the massacres. Three were given life sentences — two former officers from the Bosnian Serb army’s main headquarters, Zdravko Tolimir and Ljubisa Beara, as well as former Bosnian Serb Army Drina Corps security officer Vujadin Popovic.
Updated to add reactions.