Ratko Mladic’s Trial Moves Closer To Final Judgment -Analysis


By Radosa Milutinovic

As they start to lay out their closing arguments on Monday, the prosecutors at the UN war crimes court in The Hague are expected to ask for a life sentence for the military leader they accuse of seeking to permanently remove Bosniaks and Croats from large parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina which were controlled by Bosnian Serb forces during the 1992-95 war.

Mladic has been on trial for over four years, accused of the genocide of over 7,000 men and boys from Srebrenica, the persecution of Bosniaks and Croats throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina, which allegedly reached the scale of genocide in several other municipalities, terrorising the population of besieged Sarajevo and taking UN peacekeepers hostage.

According to the prosecutors, he used military force to implement a joint criminal enterprise spearheaded by the Bosnian Serb political leadership and former president Radovan Karadzic, aimed at creating a Serb state.

But Mladic, now aged 74, has denied committing genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

His defence insisted that there was no such criminal enterprise, and claimed that the war was actually caused by the Bosniak-led Party of Democratic Action, which wanted a “unitary Islamic state dominated by Muslims”.

However, faced with overwhelming evidence gathered by the Hague Tribunal while Mladic was the run for 16 years before being captured in Serbia in 2011, the defence did not contest the fact that crimes were committed.

‘A self-fulfilling prophecy’

Among the most striking pieces of evidence that were aired during the trial were Mladic’s own words, jotted down in his notebooks, which were recovered by the prosecution and presented in court.

Several experts, called by the Hague prosecutors, also claimed that Mladic said at the very start of the conflict in May 1992 that the main wartime goal agreed by the Bosnian Serb authorities at the time – separating Serbs from Bosniaks and Croats – meant there would be “genocide”, because “people are not coins or keys you can move from one pocket to the other”.

The prosecution argued that this became a “self-fulfilling prophecy”, with Mladic willingly accepting persecution and the commission of crimes, which culminated with the Srebrenica genocide in July 1995, in order to “build the borders of the new Serb state”.

Prosecutors attempted to prove Mladic’s alleged genocidal intent in Srebrenica by using his own words, spoken on July 11, 1995, the day when Bosnian Serb forces overran the enclave.

Mladic told reporters that “the time has come to take revenge on the Turks [Bosniaks]”.

Prosecutor Peter McCloskey said that “five days after this comment, Mladic’s troops captured and killed more than 7,000 men and boys”.

Mladic also told Bosniaks in Srebrenica on July 12, 1995 that they would “survive or disappear” – which, according to the prosecution, proved he had a “murderous plan”.

But these claims were disputed by the defence, which called military expert Mitar Kovac to argue that such a statement represented “an expression of professional responsibility aimed at protecting the lives of all”.

A day later, on July 13, 1995, Belgrade-based journalist Zoran Petrovic-Pirocanac was in Srebrenica and filmed dozens of Bosniaks being killed in Kravica, the first site of the mass execution of the men and boys from Srebrenica.

The prosecutors tried to prove Mladic’s responsibility for this and other atrocities, using the testimonies of former Bosnian Serb troops, most notably Hague Tribunal defendants Momir Nikolic and Drazen Erdemovic. Both men were convicted by the Tribunal of committing crimes during the Srebrenica massacres after signing plea agreements.

Nikolic told the court that he saw Mladic make a hand gesture which he understood to mean that the Bosniak prisoners from Srebrenica would be killed.

Another former Bosnian Serb soldier, Srecko Acimovic, who said he refused an order to kill Bosniaks in Srebrenica, claimed that those responsible for actually implementing the massacres were Bosnian Serb Army officers Ljubisa Beara and Zdravko Tolimir.

According to prosecutor McCloskey, the two men were in charge of “most of the work of persecuting and killing”. Both were sentenced to life in prison for their role in the massacres.

Prosecution military expert Richard Butler told the court that they could not have organised the transportation and killings of thousands of prisoners without the knowledge and approval of Mladic.

Mladic’s defence, however, tried to prove that he “never ordered a single crime in Srebrenica”, or in other places. It also tried to prove that many Bosniaks were actually killed in fighting around Srebrenica.

Defence expert Dusan Pavlovic claimed that “at least 4,000 to 4,500 Bosnian Army fighters and civilians” were killed during an attempt to break through the Bosnian Serb Army’s lines around Srebrenica and flee through the woods to safety.

Other defence witnesses said that Mladic never gave orders while in Srebrenica, while some also tried to put the blame on police, instead of military personnel under his general command.

Witness Nedjo Jovicic, who saw the killings in Kravica, claimed he saw policemen killing people, not soldiers.

Ex-servicemen Dragan Todorovic said meanwhile that Mladic’s ‘assistant’ Dragomir Pecanac acted on his own volition and took Erdemovic and other Bosnian Serb soldiers to kill Muslims.

Defence military expert Kovac also insisted that the Bosnian Serb military-political leadership did not plan the “massive crime” which was committed in Srebrenica.

The defence also called witnesses who disputed Momir Nikolic’s testimony and denied that Mladic made any hand gesture indicting that Bosniak prisoners would be killed.

‘No ethnic cleansing’

Among Mladic’s witnesses, mostly former officers who denied that Bosniaks and Croats were persecuted and testified that they willingly left their homes, was former MP and current Bosnian Serb President Milorad Dodik.

“I can say today that I am totally confident that the official policy of that time was not ethnic cleansing,” Dodik told the court.

The defence also sought to prove that Mladic was not responsible for persecution in Bosnian Serb detention camps.

Journalist Ed Vulliamy, a prosecution witness, called detention camps near Prijedor “concentration camps”, but defence witnesses such as Miso Radic suggested that the crimes in such camps, such as the killing of 150 men in the Keraterm detention centre, were committed by policemen and not military officials under Mladic’s command.

Several former camp detainees testified about the horrific conditions and suffering in detention centres in Prijedor – but defence witnesses claimed that Bosniaks went to the centres voluntarily, seeking protection from Serb paramilitaries.

‘Reign of terror’

In its attempt to prove that Mladic used Bosnian Serb artillery to shell and terrorise civilians in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo during the 1992-95 siege, prosecutors presented a video recording of him ordering his units to “blow the minds” of people in the city by firing on districts in which there were few Serb inhabitants.

Former United Nations official David Harland testified that Karadzic and Mladic used the shelling of Sarajevo to terrorise the city’s population.

Several former UN peacekeepers who were deployed in Sarajevo agreed with his assessment. But they also accepted defence claims that the Bosnian Army provoked shelling by Mladic’s forces, although they said that the Serb response was disproportionate.

Mladic’s witnesses, mostly Serb officers, laid the blame for attacks at the hands of Bosniak military officials, claiming that the Bosnian Serb Army only responded to attacks.

Military expert Kovac meanwhile denied that Sarajevo was under siege at all.

One of the mostly hotly-contested issues was the shelling of the Markale marketplace in Sarajevo, when scores of people were killed in two separate attacks.

While prosecution expert Richard Higgs and Sarajevo investigators said the mortar shell was fired from the Serb side, defence ballistic experts argued that this was impossible and said that the massacres were staged.

Mladic’s lawyers also called several UN peacekeepers who said that the Serbs were not responsible for the marketplace attacks and that the Bosniaks staged the massacres to ensure NATO would intervene on their side.

Finally, the prosecution and defence agreed that Mladic’s forces captured more than 200 UN peacekeepers in the summer of 1995 – but while the prosecution said they were hostages, the defence called them prisoners of war.

Ahead of the start of the closing arguments in the case, Mladic’s lawyer told news agency AFP on Friday that the former Bosnian Serb military chief does not have “high hopes” of acquittal, as he believes the court is politically biased.

“He thinks that if they were to judge him according to the facts, he would be acquitted. But if it’s a political trial he will be convicted,” said lawyer Branko Lukic.

The verdict is expected next autumn.

Balkan Insight

The Balkan Insight (formerly the Balkin Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN) is a close group of editors and trainers that enables journalists in the region to produce in-depth analytical and investigative journalism on complex political, economic and social themes. BIRN emerged from the Balkan programme of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, IWPR, in 2005. The original IWPR Balkans team was mandated to localise that programme and make it sustainable, in light of changing realities in the region and the maturity of the IWPR intervention. Since then, its work in publishing, media training and public debate activities has become synonymous with quality, reliability and impartiality. A fully-independent and local network, it is now developing as an efficient and self-sustainable regional institution to enhance the capacity for journalism that pushes for public debate on European-oriented political and economic reform.

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