By Rachel Irwin
During the second and final day of opening arguments in the trial of former Bosnian Serb army commander Ratko Mladic, prosecutors showed video clips of the accused in Srebrenica after his forces captured the eastern Bosnian town on July 11, 1995.
As the hearing ended on May 17, presiding Judge Alphons Orie said that the start of witness testimony would be delayed beyond the scheduled date of May 29, because the prosecution had mistakenly failed to disclose several thousand documents to the defence.
“The chamber is still in the process of gathering information as to the scope and the full impact of this error,” Judge Alphons Orie told the court. “The chamber aims to announce a start date for evidence as soon as possible.”
Mladic’s defence team has asked for a six month suspension, while the prosecution has indicated that it is not opposed to a “reasonable” adjournment.
Earlier in the day, during the prosecution’s presentation on events at Srebrenica in July 1995, lawyers showed video footage of Mladic in army uniform greeting his subordinates and congratulating them on a job “well done” in capturing the town.
He is then seen strolling through Srebrenica’s empty streets, and remarking that “the Turks have run away” – a reference to Bosnian Muslims.
“We give this town to the Serb people as a gift,” Mladic says in the clip. “The time has come to take revenge on the Turks.”
Prosecutors allege that in the days following the town’s capture, Mladic gave orders for his troops to round up, detain, summarily execute and bury more than 7,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys at various sites in areas surrounding Srebrenica.
“This was and will remain genocide,” prosecuting lawyer Peter McCloskey told the court. “As you absorb the evidence of this crime, there is no doubt you will reach the same conclusion. After some 17 years of investigation, the evidence of this crime is overwhelming and unassailable.”
The Srebrenica massacre has been the subject of several previous trials at the Hague tribunal and thus has already been classified as genocide.
“Let me be perfectly clear—the crime will not be the main focus of the prosecution,” McCloskey said of the massacre. “This case will be primarily about one issue – the individual criminal responsibility of Ratko Mladic.”
Mladic is charged with planning, instigating and ordering the Srebrenica massacre, as well as the 44-month sniping and shelling campaign against the Bosnian capital Sarajevo which left some 12,000 people dead.
The indictment – which lists 11 counts in total – alleges that Mladic was responsible for crimes of genocide, persecution, extermination, murder and forcible transfer which “contributed to achieving the objective of the permanent removal of Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats from Bosnian Serb-claimed territory”.
Srebrenica was officially declared a United Nations demilitarised “safe area” in 1993 – a move that McCloskey said was “well-intentioned” but created a “ticking time bomb”.
This was because there were too few UN peacekeepers to protect the swelling population of Bosniak refugees crowding into the area, and the Bosnian Serb army continued to surround the enclave, McCloskey said.
In March 1995, Mladic’s superior, the then Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic, signed what has become known as “Directive Seven,” a document drafted by the main staff of the Bosnian Serb army.
Directive Seven makes it an objective to “create an unbearable situation of total insecurity with no hope of further survival or life for inhabitants of Srebrenica and Zepa”, McCloskey said, quoting from the document.
By the summer of 1995, the Bosnian Serb army stepped up efforts to retake the enclave and began shelling it on July 6. The Dutch peacekeeping battalion, known as Dutchbat, was stationed at various observation posts but was “totally outgunned and unable to stop them”, McCloskey said.
By the evening of July 11, after Srebrenica had fallen, some 25,000 Bosniak civilians fled the enclave for the UN base in nearby Potocari, while about 15,000 men, along with some women, set off through the woods heading for the Bosnian-held city of Tuzla, McCloskey said.
That same evening, a meeting took place at the Hotel Fontana in the town of Bratunac, attended by Mladic, other members of the Bosnian Serb army, and Dutchbat commander Colonel Thomas Karremans.
In video footage of this meeting shown to the court, Mladic is seen shouting at Karremans and accusing him of ordering Dutchbat peacekeepers to fire on Bosnian Serb troops.
He then tells Karremans to bring a representative of the Bosniak population to the next meeting, to be held later the same night.
At that second meeting, McCloskey said, Karremans brought along a local schoolteacher. The prosecution did not show footage of this meeting, but said it would do so at a later stage. McCloskey said the film shows Mladic turning to the teacher and telling him to decide whether “you want to survive, stay or perish”.
“The future of your people is in your hands. Bring people who can secure the surrender of weapons,” McCloskey quotes Mladic as telling the teacher.
“Mladic is obsessed with the salvation and destruction of the Muslim people,” the prosecuting lawyer commented.
At a third meeting held the following morning, Mladic said the civilian population of Srebrenica could either “survive or disappear”, and that they must lay down their weapons if they chose to survive, McCloskey said.
Mladic then announced that men and boys between the ages of 16 and 60 would be separated for “screening” to determine whether they were “war criminals,” McCloskey said.
“Importantly, there was little or no screening of men and boys. IDs and belongings were taken and discarded… Men were given no food, no medical care, very little water and crowded into buildings in searing 40 degree heat,” he said.
“Many were beaten and some murdered,” he added.
“With no records made or basic procedures followed, along with terrible treatment, [it could] only mean that on July 12, Mladic had no intention to let these men survive,” McCloskey said.
In the days that followed, several thousand men who were either rounded up in Potocari or ambushed while trying to flee towards free territory, were detained in various public buildings before being transferred by bus to execution sites and killed.
“This was not army out of control or controlled by someone else. Only an army strictly controlled from the top could manage to murder 7,000 people in four days,” McCloskey told the court.
“In the fall of 1995, Mladic and Karadzic decided to exhume enormous mass graves and scatter remains into smaller graves hidden in isolated [areas] where they hoped [the remains] would not be found. Most of secondary graves were found and exhumed,” McCloskey continued.
In a video clip from July 26, shortly after the massacre, Mladic is seen boarding a bus filled with civilians who are due to depart from Zepa, which is close to Srebrenica.
“I am General Mladic,” he tells the people huddled on the bus. “I am giving you your lives as a gift.”
He warns able-bodied men not to appear before him “at the front” of the ongoing Bosnian conflict. “Next time there will be no forgiveness,” he adds.
At the conclusion of the presentation, prosecuting lawyer Dermot Groome dismissed the idea that Mladic had an alibi because he travelled to Belgrade between July 14 and 17, when the mass executions were taking place.
“The fact that Mladic went to meetings and a wedding when the crime he ordered took place does not absolve him of it,” Groome said.
Mladic was arrested on May 26, 2011, in Serbia after 16 years living as a fugitive.
Rachel Irwin is an IWPR reporter in The Hague. This article was published at IWPR’s TRI Issue 741.