Analysis 21 Nov 17

Ratko Mladic: Genocidal Criminal or Innocent Protector?

During a four-year trial, the Hague Tribunal has heard powerful and strongly-contested arguments about whether Ratko Mladic is guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity or whether he simply defended Bosnia’s Serbs.

Radosa Milutinovic BIRN Belgrade
 Ratko Mladic meets children in Srebrenica just before the massacres in July 1995. Photo: YouTube screenshot.

After hearing the testimonies of more than 300 witnesses and reviewing almost 10,000 pieces of evidence, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague will announce its first-instance verdict in the trial of Ratko Mladic for genocide and other alleged wartime crimes in Bosnia and Herzegovina on Wednesday.

Mladic is charged with genocide against more than 7,000 men and boys from Srebrenica in 1995, the persecution of Bosniaks and Croats which reached the scale of genocide in six municipalities in 1992, terrorising the inhabitants of Sarajevo with a campaign of shelling and sniper attacks, and taking UN peacekeepers hostage.

These crimes, according to the prosecutors, were committed within four joint criminal enterprises that were “aimed at creating a Serb state on territories of Bosnia and Herzegovina” with as few Bosniaks and Croats as possible.

Mladic “realised these criminal enterprises by military force”, while Radovan Karadzic was their political leader, it is alleged.

Two counts of the indictment charge Mladic with genocide, five with crimes against humanity, persecution, extermination, killings, deportation and forcible transfer. In another five counts, Mladic is charged with killings, illegal attacks on civilians, taking hostages and violations of the laws and customs of war.

In their final arguments in the trial in December 2016, prosecutors asked the UN court to sentence Mladic to life in prison because “his hand” was visible in all the crimes that were committed.

Prosecutors claimed that Mladic demonstrated “criminal intent to remove Bosniaks and Croats from territories Serbs believed were their own”.

They alleged that Mladic was the “master of life and death”, citing his statement to Bosniaks in the town of Zepa after the killings in Srebrenica in July 1995: “I give you your lives.”

‘The Serbs defended themselves’

Mladic’s defence disputed that a joint criminal enterprise existed, claiming the war started because the Bosniak Party of Democratic Action wanted to create a “unitary Islamic Bosnia with Muslim domination”, from which the Serbs defended themselves.

Mladic defended his people “according to the law” from an enemy “filled with Islamic fanaticism”, said his lawyer Branko Lukic.

Defence lawyers tried to shift the guilt for many undisputed crimes onto the Bosnian Serb police, local authorities and civilians, suggesting that wither Radovan Karadzic was to blame, or paramilitaries over whom Mladic had no control.

Insisting that Mladic should be acquitted, his defence claimed that Sarajevo, Srebrenica and other towns which were “defended by the [Bosniak-led] Bosnian Army” were legitimate military targets.

Mladic’s words become evidence

Prosecutors used Mladic’s own words, spoken or written during the war, as evidence in the trial.

According to prosecution expert witness expert Richard Butler, Mladic said in May 1992 that the separation of Serbs from Croats and Bosniaks – one of the goals of the Bosnian Serb leadership – would mean “genocide”, because “people are not keys or coins to move from one pocket to another”.

Prosecutors alleged that Mladic was prepared to accept the use of persecution and the commission of crimes, which culminated with the Srebrenica genocide, to “cut out the boundaries of the new Serb state”.

As early as 1993, according to prosecution evidence, Mladic ordered that Bosniak troops be expelled from eastern Bosnia “along with their population”. The year afterwards, he said it was a “key task” to “expel Muslims from the Srebrenica pocket”, claiming that his “wish is for Muslims to completely disappear”.

According to prosecutors, Mladic brought to life Radovan Karadzic’s Directive 7, which was issued in March 1995 which demanded that “unbearable conditions of complete insecurity” be created so the Serbs’ opponents would lose all belief in “the further survival and life of the population”.

As evidence of Mladic’s alleged genocidal intent, his statement a day after the fall of Srebrenica was cited, in which he claimed: “The time has finally come for revenge against the Turks [Bosnian Muslims] who live in this area.”

“Not long after, around 7,000 men and boys, some as young as 12, were killed and the population moved… Srebrenica disappeared,” said prosecutor Alan Tieger in his closing remarks.

Mladic’s comment to Srebrenica’s Bosniaks that they could “survive or disappear” was the “prelude to a killing plan”, prosecutors claimed.

Video footage from the Belgrade-based Studio B television station which showed dozens of bodies of Bosniaks from Srebrenica in a warehouse in Kravica was presented as key evidence that the mass killings started on the day that Mladic said this.

Video of Srebrenica killings

Video footage of the killing of six men from Srebrenica near Trnovo by the Serbian ‘Scorpions’ paramilitary unit was shown in the courtroom.

Former Bosnian Serb soldiers also testified for the Hague prosecution, included Momir Nikolic, who has previously admitted guilt for crimes in Srebrenica, and who told judges that Mladic gestured to him before the massacres that the Bosniaks from Srebrenica would be killed.

Another convicted man, Drazen Erdemovic, described how he was involved in the killings of men from Srebrenica in Branjevo in July 1995, while Srecko Acimovic said that he refused an order from Bosnian Serb security officer Vujadin Popovic to shoot Bosniaks.

Military expert Butler said that Popovic and two other Bosnian Serb Army commanders, Ljubisa Beara and Zdravko Tolimir, could not have organied the killing of Srebrenica prisoners without Mladic’s go-ahead. Popovic, Beara and Tolimir have all been sentenced by the Tribunal to life in prison for genocide.

‘Number of victims exaggerated’

The defence insisted during the trial that Mladic “never ordered a single crime” and that he did not have genocidal intent, because there was no written order to kill Bosniaks.

According to defence expert witness Dusan Pavlovic, the death toll was “overblown” because at least 4,000 to 5,000 people were killed when Bosnian Army troops allegedly broke out of Srebrenica after it fell to Serb forces.

The defence also sought to argue that Mladic was not responsible for the Srebrenica killings.

“Some men and boys were killed tragically in acts of personal vendetta in Srebrenica, which were committed by individuals, the police forces or officers who went rogue from Mladic - such as Beara and Popovic,” argued defence lawyer Dragan Ivetic.

The defence further claimed that Mladic was not even in command of the Bosnian Serb Army while he was in Belgrade between July 14 and 17, 1995, when the Bosniaks from Srebrenica were killed.

‘Evidence of genocide in 1992’

Prosecutors argued that as well as the genocide of Bosniaks from Srebrenica in 1995, Mladic’s forces also committed genocide in six other municipalities in 1992 – Prijedor, Kljuc, Sanski Most, Foca, Vlasenica and Kotor Varos – as well as persecuting Bosniaks and Croats in these areas.

The Bosnian Serb Army used “brutal force” to expel tens of thousands of Bosniaks and Croats and kill hundreds of civilians in the six municipalities, they claimed. Many were illegally detained in camps such as Omarska, Keraterm and Trnopolje, where they were abused and killed.

As proof of ethnic cleansing, prosecution military expert Ewan Brown cited an entry in Mladic’s notebook which stated that 17,000 Bosniaks lived in Kljuc before the war, but in the summer of 1992, only 2,000 remained. In Bratunac in the same period, only two Bosniaks remained.

Some of Mladic’s witnesses insisted however that Bosniaks and Croats voluntarily left warzones, including former lawmaker and current Bosnian Serb President Milorad Dodik.

Prosecution expert witnesses testified meanwhile that during the course of one week in Prijedor in 1992, 1,500 people were killed and their bodies buried in the Tomasica mine. Around 200 bodies of former Keraterm detainees were also exhumed from a mass grave in Tomasica.

But defence witness Miso Radic argued that the police and not the military was responsible for the detention camps near Prijedor – camps which British journalist Ed Vulliamy described to the court as “concentration camps”.

Former Omarska prisoner Nusret Sivac spoke of the horrors in the camps, while defence witness Rade Javoric said that Bosniaks voluntarily went there for their own protection.

Prosecutor Tieger insisted that the pattern and scale of the crimes in 1992 “undoubtedly shows Mladic’s intent to destroy non-Serb communities, and that intent is called genocide”. But Mladic’s team said that genocide did not take place since most Bosniaks were not killed, just moved to other places.

‘Flood of terror’ in Sarajevo

As evidence that Mladic used artillery and sniper attacks to terrorise the besieged population of Sarajevo, prosecutors cited his order in May 1992 to open fire on settlements where not many Serbs resided. “Don’t let them sleep at all. Blow their minds,” said Mladic in May 1992.

Mladic’s wartime comment that “whenever I come to Sarajevo, I kill someone along the way” was also quoted in the courtroom.

United Nations official David Harland said that Karadzic and Mladic used the shelling of Sarajevo as a “flood of terror which was opened and closed” based on their needs.

Many former UN peacekeepers agreed with this assessment, testifying that the Bosnian Serb Army used indiscriminate and heavy fire on Sarajevo to answer to Bosnian Army provocations.

Mladic’s witnesses, mostly former Bosnian Serb officers, but also ballistics expert Zorica Subotic, placed the blame for civilians’ deaths in Sarajevo on the Bosnian Army, claiming that the Serb forces only opened fire on military targets.

According to lawyer Ivetic, Sarajevo was a legitimate military target as “the Bosnian Army placed their forces among civilians and used them as a human shield”.

Two explosions at Sarajevo’s Markale market in 1994 and 1995, in which scores of people were killed both times, were the subject of fierce debate in the courtroom.

Prosecution expert witness Richard Higgs said the fire came from the Serb side, while Subotic was adamant that the explosion at the market was staged.

Sarajevo policeman Emil Turkusic called this a “horrible speculation”.

Former UN peacekeeper Paul Conway testified meanwhile about his belief, for which he produced no evidence, that the Bosnian Army caused the Markale massacre to force NATO to stage a strike on the Serbs.

The defence also tried to prove that a sniper bullet which killed seven-year-old Nermin Divovic in 1994 and injured his mother Dzenana Sokolovic did not come from a Serb position, while a former member of the Bosnian secret service, Edin Garaplija, said that his own forces were to blame for some of the shelling and sniping incidents.

On the final charge, both prosecutors and lawyers agreed that Mladic’s forces captured 200 UN peacekeepers in 1995 - but the prosecutors said the captives were hostages and the defence described them as prisoners of war.

After a trial that lasted from May 2012 to December 2016, the first-instance judgment will be handed down by a chamber consisting of presiding judge Alphons Orie, from the Netherlands, and judges Bakone Moloto, a South African, and Christoph Flugge, a German.

The verdict can be appealed.

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