Bosnia's Butcher in Court: Ratko Mladic Stands Trial for War Crimes

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Former Bosnian Serb army chief Ratko Mladic arrives on May 16, 2012 at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague before the opening of his war crimes trial. Mladic faces 11 counts including genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity for his role in the Bosnian war, in particular the 1995 Srebrenica massacre.

Jauntily applauding his war crimes judges and giving them a thumbs up, Ratko Mladic showed he had lost none of the swagger of the soldier who stands accused of masterminding Europe's most horrific killing spree in modern times. Nor did the man once dubbed the "Butcher of Bosnia" and the "Beast of the Balkans" show any remorse: catching the eye of a woman in the audience — a survivor of the massacre he is accused of ordering in Srebrenica — Mladic ran his hand across his throat. The throat-cutting gesture prompted presiding judge Alphons Orie to hold a brief recess and order an end to "inappropriate interactions."

This was just the first day of Mladic's trial at the United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague. Mladic, who led the Bosnian Serbian army during the 1992-95 war in Bosnia, is charged with 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including the massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica in 1995. Now nearly 70, he spent 15 years on the run in Serbia before being captured by Serb special forces last May. He is also charged with orchestrating the 44-month siege of Bosnia's capital Sarajevo, during which an estimated 12,000 people died.

Prosecutors have 200 hours to make their case, which is to include testimony from 411 witnesses. They aim to show that Mladic was not a mere follower of orders but rather a director and organizer of mass slaughters during the Bosnian war. Prosecutor Dermot Groome said Wednesday that Mladic and other Bosnian Serbs implemented a common plan to exterminate non-Serbs. "The prosecution will present evidence that will show beyond a reasonable doubt the hand of Mr. Mladic in each of these crimes," he said. Groome added that by the time Mladic and his troops had "murdered thousands in Srebrenica," they were "well-rehearsed in the craft of murder."

Srebrenica is one of the best-documented atrocities in modern history: there was real-time satellite surveillance of the killings, as well as film and video taken by the perpetrators, including Mladic himself. Mladic issued his orders through a military radio system, not bothering to scramble his words, and they were recorded and broadcast on television news programs across the country the next day.

Srebrenica was part of Mladic's grand plan to rid Bosnian lands of Bosnian Muslims, Croats and other non-Serbs to create a Greater Serbia. Some 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were executed in cold blood in the city from July 11-22, 1995, after his soldiers forced 400 Dutch U.N. peacekeepers to flee the city and the civilians they were protecting. Babies' throats were slit and girls as young as 12 were mercilessly gang raped. "Mladic embodied the worst of the war," says Laura Silber, co-author of the book The Death of Yugoslavia and now the director of public affairs for the Open Society Foundations, a civil rights institute. "I saw the adulation he received from his soldiers — they saw him as a true hero. But this man was a monster."

Mladic was the military chief of Radovan Karadzic, the wartime Bosnian Serb President, who is currently being tried in a neighboring courtroom at the war crimes tribunal on identical charges of masterminding Serb atrocities. Mladic has said through his lawyer that he does not recognize the special U.N. court, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, which could sentence him to life in prison. His lawyers have also said he was too ill to sit through the trial, but this was seen as a delaying tactic. Nonetheless, Serge Brammertz, the chief prosecutor of the court, will be anxious to make sure that Mladic doesn't follow the fate of the tribunal's most important defendant, Slobodan Milosevic, the former Serbian President, who he died in his cell in 2006 before a verdict was reached.

The sight of the Butcher of Bosnia in the dock is expected to have a huge impact in the former Yugoslavia. For the Bosnians who suffered so much during the war, justice is finally, if belatedly being served. Some 25 members of the Mothers of Srebrenica group — woman and children who lost male relatives during the massacre — demonstrated against Mladic outside the court, offering poignant stories from a most brutal era. "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 an association of parents and children killed in the siege of Sarajevo, told Reuters.

For Serbs, many of whom still revere Mladic as the nation's fearless protector, the trial could be a way of coming to terms with the country's recent past. "The trial has the potential to be an inflection point for Serbia as it turns toward Europe," says Damon Wilson, a former NATO and U.S. State Department official in the Balkans who now serves as executive vice president of the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank. "But if it is a catharsis, it will be over a long time. The impact will be cumulative. It is the beginning of a process to reach closure. The important point is to set the record straight through a long painful process of historical reconciliation."

Serbia is taking tentative steps to heal the wounds of war after being accused of sheltering Mladic for years by the West. In the past couple of years, Serbia's parliament has apologized for Srebrenica and President Boris Tadic has pushed the government to track down Mladic, who was finally captured in a farmhouse in northern Serbia. For Tadic, a pro-reform leader elected in 2004, these steps were necessary to bring his country into the wider European family after years of being an international pariah. Tadic, who faces a presidential runoff election on Sunday, has also helped consolidate Serbia's democracy, rebuild its economy and reach out to its neighbors. The country is now on the track to European Union membership — something that would have been unthinkable a decade ago.

"The trial is a moment when people in Serbia can see what was done in their name, the evil that was perpetrated," says Ivan Vejvoda, vice president for programs at the German Marshall Fund, a U.S. public policy group. He says, though, that there is still a residual sense of denial in Serbia about the past and it will take time for the trial's effects to percolate down to everyday people. "I was an aide to former Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, who delivered Milosevic to The Hague. But he was assassinated for it in 2003. He paid the ultimate price."

Mladic's trial is one of the last chapters of the bloody Bosnian story. Fidgeting in his seat at times on Wednesday, he seemed to scorn the entire process. But for all his brash theatrics, he was a very diminished figure — a man who's time had finally caught up to him.