THE HAGUE (Reuters) - Former Bosnian Serb army chief Ratko Mladic goes on trial this week in a case that will establish if he was responsible for some of the worst atrocities in Europe since World War Two.
Mladic, 70, was in charge of the Bosnian Serb army when, over two nights in July 1995, its fighters shot 8,000 Muslim men and boys in and around the town of Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia, burying most in mass graves.
It was Europe’s worst mass killing since the Holocaust.
Prosecutors at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) accuse Mladic of genocide, murder, acts of terror and other crimes against humanity during the 1992-95 Bosnian war.
Mladic, one of the first big names from the wars that followed the break-up of Yugoslavia to be indicted by the court, is the last of them to go on trial.
He was indicted in 1995 along with Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serbs’ political leader, although both remained free in former Yugoslavia for more than a decade before being arrested and passed to The Hague. Karadzic’s trial is already under way.
Former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic was indicted in 1999 and went on trial in The Hague in 2001, but died in 2006 before a verdict was reached.
Prosecutors say Mladic was part of a “joint criminal enterprise to eliminate the Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica by killing the men and boys ... and forcibly removing the women, young children and some elderly men”.
They say Bosnian Serb forces (BSF) attempted to hide the slaughter by dumping victims in remote unmarked graves.
“When it became apparent that despite these efforts the world had learned of the mass murder of Srebrenica’s Muslim men, BSF implemented (an) ... operation designed to further conceal the bodies and the crimes,” said a pre-trial brief.
“Thousands of corpses were dug up with excavators, moved in trucks and dumped in even more remote locations.”
Bodies were later found strewn across 17 primary and 37 secondary mass graves.
Mladic is also held responsible for the siege and bombardment of the Bosnian capital Sarajevo, which killed 10,000 civilians. The prosecution described it as a plan to “spread terror among the civilian population”.
The horrors of the siege, together with the Srebrenica massacre, eventually galvanized world opinion in support of the campaign of Western air strikes on Bosnian Serb targets that brought the conflict to an end shortly after.
Mladic lived openly in Belgrade in the early years after his indictment, going into hiding after Milosevic’s fall in 2000.
Growing pressure for his capture from the European Union left him ever more isolated over the following decade, as Serbia moved towards EU membership.
In May 2011 he was arrested in a farmhouse in northern Serbia, penniless and in poor health.
He recently had an operation for what is believed to have been a hernia, and during pre-trial hearings his attention appeared to wander.
“I am pushing 70, I‘m very old. Every day I‘m more infirm and weaker. I‘m speaking now about my health and ability to concentrate,” he said last month.
“You must appreciate that, as an old man, I cannot follow this for 90 minutes during the day, five days a week.”
Serge Brammertz, the ICTY’s chief prosecutor, has dismissed concerns that Mladic will find it difficult to sit through a 200-hour prosecution case involving testimony from 411 witnesses.
“He seems to feel better than he did when he arrived at the tribunal,” Brammertz told reporters recently.
Mladic has benefited from medical attention since being brought to The Hague. At his first court appearance last year, he was unable even to lift a glass with his right arm and needed help to put on his interpretation headphones. In recent hearings, he appeared to have regained the use of his right arm.
The prosecution has simplified its case at the request of judges in order to speed the trial, halving the number of individual crimes mentioned in the 11 counts against him.
Even if he is physically weaker, Mladic still has the bullish defiance of the Bosnian warlord of the 1990s.
“You are a NATO court,” he said at a pre-trial hearing.
“You shouldn’t try me or my people. NATO bombed my people the same way it is now bombing people in Africa and Asia. You are biased.”
The ICTY was established in 1993 in response to the failure of diplomatic pressure to end the Yugoslav wars, during which Mladic’s ethnic Serb army seized 70 percent of Bosnian territory, brutally cleansing it of Muslims and ethnic Croats.
It was the first international war crimes court to be set up since the Nuremberg military tribunals at the end of World War Two, and has paved the way for others.
They include the Special Court for Sierra Leone, which last month convicted former Liberian leader Charles Taylor of aiding and abetting crimes against humanity.
A U.N. tribunal based in Arusha, Tanzania, has convicted dozens for crimes committed during the Rwandan genocide of 1994. A tribunal in Phnom Penh has put several leaders of the Khmer Rouge on trial for its mass killings in Cambodia in the late 1970s.
The world’s first permanent war crimes court, the International Criminal Court, has just celebrated its 10th anniversary with the war crimes conviction of Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga Dyilo.
Over the past 19 years, the ICTY has managed to arrest all its 161 indictees, defying skeptics who doubted whether its biggest targets would ever be brought to face justice.
“When I started here in 2008, few thought Mladic and Karadzic would be arrested. But they were,” said Brammertz.
Reporting by Thomas Escritt; Editing by Sara Webb and Andrew Roche