Ratko Mladic's UN war crimes opens in The Hague

AFP , Wednesday 16 May 2012

Trial under way of Ratko Mladic, at which he is accused of carrying out war crimes and crimes against humanity in his role as army commander during Balkan war

Woman walks past graffiti of Bosnian Serb wartime general Ratko Mladic in a suburb of Belgrade May 2011 (Photo: Stoyan Nenov/Reuters)

Former Bosnian Serb army commander Ratko Mladic went on trial Wednesday accused of carrying out a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing, including Europe's worst atrocity since World War II.

"Ratko Mladic assumed the mantle of the criminal goal of ethnically cleansing Bosnia," prosecutor Dermot Groome told the judges at the Yugoslav war crimes court in The Hague.

Mladic, 70, has been indicted on 11 counts of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role in the Balkan country's brutal 1992-95 war that killed 100,000 people and left 2.2 million homeless.

"The prosecution will present evidence that will show without reasonable doubt the hand of Mr Mladic in each of these crimes," Groome added after Mladic, dressed in a dark grey suit and patterned tie, sarcastically briefly applauded judges as they walked into the courtroom.

Mladic pleaded not guilty to the charges at an earlier court hearing last June.

Outside the courtroom, a group of 25 women belonging to the "Mothers of Srebrenica" organisation representing widows and victims of the Srebrenica massacre, held a demonstration.

"This is the biggest butcher of the Balkans and the world," Munira Subasic, 65, told AFP. She lost 22 relatives to Bosnian Serb military forces when the enclave of 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.

Almost 8,000 Muslim men and boys were systematically murdered as Bosnian-Serb forces under General Mladic's command overran the town and Dutch UN peacekeepers helplessly looked on.

Prosecutors also hold him responsible for the 44-month siege of Sarajevo where his forces waged a "terror campaign" of sniping and shelling that left an estimated 10,000 people, the vast majority of them civilians, dead.

Two days ahead of the trial, his lawyers filed a request for a six-month adjournment, saying they needed more time to prepare a defence.

President Judge Alphons Orie said at the trial's opening the court was still considering whether to postpone the case, on the grounds that the prosecution made a "significant error" which could affect the course of the trial.

During a string of pre-trial hearings, the ageing former general spoke about little else except to complain about his poor health and to ask presiding Dutch Judge Alphons Orie if he could wear his military uniform.

His lawyer Branko Lukic said Mladic suffered three strokes in 1996, 2008 and 2011 and was partly paralysed on his right side.

The tribunal's president Judge Theodor Meron on Tuesday denied a defence request to have Orie removed from the bench after Mladic's lawyers questioned his impartiality as he had previously sentenced several former subordinates of Mladic.

Radovan Karadzic, who as the Bosnian Serb political leader was Mladic's boss, is already on trial before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Both men are believed to be the main players in a plan to rid multi-ethnic Bosnia of Croats and Muslims during the bloody break-up of the former Yugoslavia.

It was in pursuit of a "Greater Serbia" that Mladic allegedly ordered his troops to "cleanse" Bosnian towns, driving out Croats, Muslims and other non-Serb residents.

After the war, Mladic continued his military career but went into hiding in 2000 after the government of then Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic fell.

He was on the run until May 2011 when he was arrested at a relative's house in Lazarevo, northeastern Serbia and flown to a prison in The Hague a few days later.

Better known from media images as a blustery commander in military fatigues, last June a sickly and haggard-looking Mladic made his first court appearance, opening proceedings by saying: "I am general Ratko Mladic... I defended my country and my people."

The trial is to continue on Thursday, before resuming on May 29. It could go on for three years before a judgment is handed down.

If found guilty, Mladic could face a life sentence.

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