Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb general who was accused of spearheading the murders of thousands of ethnic Muslims in the 1990s, has been found guilty of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.
As Marlise Simons of the New York Times reports, Mladic’s verdict was handed down on Wednesday in The Hague by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which the United Nations founded to contend with atrocities perpetrated during the Balkan wars of the '90s. Mladic, now 75, faced 11 charges: two of genocide, five of crimes against humanity and four of violating the laws or customs of war, according to Owen Bowcott and Julian Borger of the Guardian.
After trial proceedings that lasted more than five years, Mladic was found guilty of all but one of the charges, which pertains to genocide in the Bosnian municipalities. He has been sentenced to life in prison. In his summary of the verdict, Judge Alphons Orie said Mladic’s crimes "rank among the most heinous known to humankind."
The tribunal found that Mladic was a key player in the ferocious conflict that erupted in the Balkans in 1991, after Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia declared their independence from Yugoslavia. In Bosnia, Bosnian Serb armed forces targeted Muslim and Croatian civilians with the intent of creating an ethnically homogenous state. Around 100,000 people were killed, most of them Muslim. Among survivors of the atrocities, Mladic came to be known as the “Butcher of Bosnia.”
The former military leader orchestrated a deliberate campaign of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, including the three-and-a-half year siege of Sarajevo, the capital city, during which snipers deliberately targeted civilians and more than 10,000 people died. Mladic, according to Teri Schultz of NPR, was heard on intercepts urging more attacks.
But Mladic is perhaps most notorious for his participation in the 1995 massacre at Srebrenica. Video footage shows him walking through the town, patting Muslim children on the head, handing out chocolate and assuring civilians that they had nothing to fear. Days later, women and children were systematically loaded onto buses and sent to relatively friendlier Muslim territory. Of those still in the town, some 7,000 men and teenage boys were slaughtered.
After being indicted in 1995, Mladic went on the run. He was, according to Simons of the Times, “shielded by the Serbian military, which paid his salary and to this day still pays him a pension.” But in 2011, as part of Serbia’s campaign to enter into the European Union, authorities tracked Mladic down at his cousin’s house in northern Bosnia and arrested him.
Behind a false wall in Mladic’s home, authorities found recorded conversations with military officials and politicians, along with 18 of Mladic’s wartime diaries. Though these notebooks do not attest to the general’s direct participation in war crimes, they were used in Mladic’s prosecution because they contain a number of damning statements. In one entry, Simons reports, Mladic laid out six strategic goals of the Bosnian Serb leadership—chief among which was “to separate from the Croats and Muslims forever.”
The court also heard from 600 witnesses, including survivors of the conflict. And Mladic’s trial was the first to feature evidence from mass graves in the village of Tomasica, which were recently excavated. To date, investigators have identified 656 bodies from the graves.
In spite of the evidence against Mladic, his lawyers contended that he had largely been acting on the orders of high-ranking politicians, and did not direct the violent actions of his subordinates. They had also asked that the verdict be postponed due to their client’s ill health; in recent years, Mladic has suffered from multiple strokes, high blood pressure, diabetes, kidney stones and a possible heart attack. But earlier this month, judges denied his lawyers’ request to delay the verdict.
Mladic was present in the courtroom on Wednesday. Shortly before his verdict was read, he stood up and shouted "This is all lies, you are all liars," Schultz of NPR reports. But survivors of Bosnia’s violence, some of whom were on hand to witness the hearing, praised the judge’s ruling.
Fikret Alić, who became a symbol of Bosnian atrocities after his emaciated figure appeared on the cover of Time in 1992, was among the survivors who travelled to the Netherlands. “Justice has won,” he told reporters after the verdict was issued, according to the Associated Press. “[T]he war criminal has been convicted.”