Ratko Mladić, the former commander of the Bosnian Serb army and one-time fugitive from international justice, has been sentenced to life imprisonment after being convicted of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity by a UN tribunal at The Hague.
More than 20 years after the Srebrenica massacre and his first indictment by the international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), the soldier nicknamed the “butcher of Bosnia” has been found guilty of of multiple offences.
As he entered the courtroom, Mladić gave a broad smile and thumbs up to the cameras – a gesture that infuriated relatives of the victims.
The long-anticipated verdict was delayed for more than half an hour after Mladić asked the judge for a bathroom break. When he returned, his defense team then asked for proceedings to be halted or shortened because of his high blood pressure, but judges denied the request. Mladic stood up shouting at the judges, and was forcibly removed from the courtroom to allow the verdicts to be read.
Mladić, now 74, was chief of staff of Bosnian Serb forces from 1992 until 1996, during the ferocious civil wars and ethnic cleansing that followed the break-up of the Yugoslav state.
He faced 11 charges, two of genocide, five of crimes against humanity and four of violations of the laws or customs of war. He was cleared of one count of genocide, but found guilty of all other charges. The separate counts related to “ethnic cleansing” operations in Bosnia, sniping and shelling attacks on besieged civilians in Sarajevo, the massacre of Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica and taking UN personnel hostage in an attempt to deter Nato airstrikes.
Delivering the verdicts, judge Alphons Orie said Mladic’s crimes “rank among the most heinous known to humankind and include genocide and extermination”.
He dismissed mitigation pleas by the defence that Mladic was of “good character”, had diminished mental capacity and was in poor physical health.
Relatives of victims flew into the Netherlands to attend the hearing, determined to see Mladić receive justice decades after the end of the war which claimed more than 100,000 lives. Mladić’s home village of Bozinovici, however, retains a street named after the former general, where he is praised as a symbol of defiance and national pride.
Mladić was one of the world’s most wanted fugitives before his arrest in 2011 in northern Serbia. He was transferred to the ICTY in the Netherlands, where he refused to plead. A not guilty plea was eventually entered on his behalf. Through much of the trial in The Hague, he was a disruptive presence in court, heckling judges and on one occasion making a cut-throat gesture at the mother of one of the 8,000 victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre.
The trial in The Hague, which took 530 days spread over more than four years, is arguably the most significant war crimes case in Europe since the Nuremberg tribunal, in part because of the scale of the atrocities involved. Almost 600 people gave evidence for the prosecution and defence, including survivors of the conflict.
The trial is one of the last to be heard by the ICTY, which is due to be dissolved at the end of the year.
At the close of the prosecution case last December, Alan Tieger, one of the prosecutors, declared: “The time has come for Ratko Mladić to be held accountable for each of his victims and all the communities he destroyed. Nobody can even imagine the depth of suffering for which Mladić is responsible.”
There had been uncertainty over whether Mladić would appear in court for the verdict. His defence lawyer, Dragan Ivetic, said that doctors should check Mladić’s health because a court appearance might kill him. “We’ve had a medical doctor that has said, actually based on his diagnosed condition, any form of stress, including a trial proceeding, may increase his chance of having a stroke, a heart attack or dying,” Ivetic said on Monday.
The verdict comes a year after former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić was found guilty of genocide over the 1995 massacre in Srebrenica and sentenced to 40 years in jail.