The guilty verdict of former Bosnian Serb army commander Ratko Mladic, known as the “Butcher of Bosnia,” brought the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) a step closer to its closure, but for many of his victims, it did little to ease the pain.
The 75-year-old former Bosnian Serb general was sentenced on November 22 to life imprisonment after being found guilty on 10 of 11 charges, including one guilty verdict of genocide, as well as war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role in the bloody 1992-95 conflict that tore the former Yugoslavia apart.
Victims both outside the court, which winds down at the end of this year, and back in Bosnia-Herzegovina applauded the result, even though some felt that justice could never be served for the man responsible for thousands of deaths during the conflict.
Bosnian Serb political and military leaders Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić are indicted for genocide in Srebrenica in July 1995. (Image UN International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia Flickr)
“None of us here expected anything else. But there is something I am not satisfied with. I am not satisfied with the verdict that [Ratko Mladic] is not guilty in Count One of the indictment [related specifically to genocide in Bosnian towns and villages],” said Munir Habibovic, a survivor of the Srebrenica massacre, as she stood in the Potocari cemetery and memorial center just outside Srebrenica.
Mladic, who insisted he was innocent of all of the charges, had managed to escape prosecution for 16 years until his arrest in Serbia in May 2011 and extradition to The Hague.
A survivor of multiple strokes, Mladic was visibly frail when the trial began in 2012. During the rendering of the verdict, his lawyers asked for a halt in the proceedings due to the accused’s high blood pressure.
After the request was denied, a visibly agitated Mladic, who defiantly opened the trial by saying, “I want my enemies, and there are many, to drop dead because I am still alive,” rose in the dock and began shouting at the court that he didn’t feel well before being removed from the room.
Moments later, Mladic was found guilty of commanding forces responsible for crimes including the worst atrocities of the war: the deadly three-year siege of the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, and the 1995 massacre of some 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica. He was found not guilty of genocide in some other Bosnian towns and villages.
Ratko Mladić, former commander of the Bosnian Serb Army, at his trial judgement at the ICTY. (Image UN International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia Flickr)
“I’m partially satisfied. It’s more than for Karadzic. But they didn’t find him guilty for the accusation of genocide in some villages,” said Munira Subasic, president of the Mothers of Srebrenica association.
The crimes committed rank among the “most heinous known to humankind,” and include genocide and extermination as a crime against humanity, Presiding Judge Alphons Orie said in reading out a summary of the judgment.
“He deserves much more severe punishment,” said one survivor, who lost her children and husband, in a live interview with the BBC outside The Hague-based court after the verdict was handed down.
“He needs to be tortured,” she said. “He’ll be fine in prison, but he needs to suffer like our children did.”
Given the gravity of the offenses, Mladic’s case became one of the highest-profile war crimes trials since the Nuremberg trials of Germany’s Nazi leadership after World War II.
UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein called the conviction a “momentous victory for justice.”
“Mladic is the epitome of evil, and the prosecution of Mladic is the epitome of what international justice is all about,” Zeid said in a statement.
Read More: Why the ‘Butcher of Bosnia’ faces a life sentence for war crimes
“Today’s verdict is a warning to the perpetrators of such crimes that they will not escape justice, no matter how powerful they may be nor how long it may take.”
Mladic’s lawyer and his son both said the verdict would be appealed and that Mladic has been denied his “basic human rights” by not being allowed to see doctors of his own choice.
The reaction in Serbia was mixed, in a country that is trying to move toward the European Union but still has strong nationalist tendencies.
President Aleksandar Vucic urged his compatriots to look to the future rather than “suffocating in tears of the past.”
In the small Serbian village of Lazarevo, where Mladic was finally apprehended, residents dismissed a court they said has sought to solely blame Serbs for the crimes committed during the Yugoslav conflict.
The AP quoted villager Igor Topolic as saying he was “horrified and saddened” by the verdict and called Mladic “a Serbian national hero.”
22 November 2017 – Ratko Mladić, former commander of the Bosnian Serb Army, at his trial judgement at the ICTY. (Image UN International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia Flickr)
With the Mladic verdict rendered, the ICTY next week will make its ruling on the appeals of former Bosnian Croat leader Jadranko Prlic and five other Bosnian Croats.
Prlic, now 57, was sentenced to 25 years in prison on charges of murdering and deporting Muslims during the war.
After that, the ICTY will close its doors.
The Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals, MICT, will take over the remaining cases along with domestic courts, particularly the Bosnian state court.