Defiant Mladic sets stage for contentious war crimes trial

Former Bosnian Serb Gen. Ratko Mladic refused to enter a plea on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity today in The Hague, and was given until July 4 to appoint a legal team.

Martin Meissner/AP
Former Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic salutes in the court room during his initial appearance at the UN's Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, on Friday, June 3. Mladic's appearance is his first public appearance since he went into hiding nearly 16 years ago, when he was indicted for genocide and war crimes committed in the 1992-95 Bosnian war.

“Good morning, Mr. Mladic,” intoned senior tribunal judge Alphons Orie just after 10 a.m. today at The Hague, as he turned to arraign the most senior military figure accused of destruction and murder in the Balkans in the 1990s.

Ratko Mladic, seated in a gray suit in the tribunal dock eight days after his arrest at a Serbian farmhouse, listened with stoic defiance as Mr. Orie stated in case number IT092-I, “You, Ratko Mladic, are charged with genocide, crimes against humanity” for actions between October 1991 and Nov. 30, 1995. The dramatic reading of charges is the culmination of more than a hundred smaller cases over 15 years.

The accused general showed no feebleness or lack of comprehension, calling them “obnoxious charges … monstrous words … I have never heard of any such thing.”

Orie took Mladic’s response as a nonplea of guilty or not guilty, as expected. A new date, July 4, is set for a formal plea in accord with tribunal procedures that allow the accused additional time to examine charges and appoint his legal team.

Mladic’s blunt denial of charges, as well as his further exchanges with the judge, appear to set up a closely contested trial of signal importance for international justice, and for Balkan memory and historical accounting, as the Serbian nation sets its sights on joining the European Union.

“For Serbia to completely turn the corner, to learn the lessons of the past, the tribunal has to discredit Mladic in a trial,” says war crimes expert Michael Scharf, a former US State Department legal official who regards Mladic’s trial as the most important so far for the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), set up in 1993.

“Mladic is a hero in Serbia. He is seen as a military hero. For Mladic to be proved guilty, for history, for Serbia, that is what will rehabilitate Serbia and help it truly join Europe. This case has implications that go far past [former Serbian president Slobodan] Milosevic and [Bosnian Serb president Radovan] Karadzic.”

Mr. Milosevic, who died at The Hague in 2005, is seen as the mastermind of the “Greater Serbia” project of ethnic cleansing at the heart of the Balkan crisis that attempted to destroy and remove non-Serbs from territories in Croatia and Bosnia. Mr. Karadzic, now on trial, was the flamboyant articulator of a then-resurgent Serbian nationalism that described that nation and its people as more deserving than others.

Mladic said he was not appearing as “Ratko Mladic” but as a defender of the Serbian people, and said he would rather “be killed by a policemen here or in the United States… . I defended my country, and I have not killed anyone in Libya” or anywhere else.

“If that is defending your country, I want nothing to do with it,” commented British Col. Robert Stewart, a former UN commander in Bosnia during the early 1990s, about Mladic’s views, to the BBC.

The Bosnian-born Mladic, sometimes called “The Butcher of Bosnia,” is charged with the three-year siege of Sarajevo, for command responsibility during the Srebrenica massacre of 8,000 unarmed Bosnian Muslim men and boys, for the widespread destruction of civilian infrastructure and places of worship, the extermination of non-Serbs in 23 municipalities, and for taking UN peacekeepers hostage following airstrikes by NATO jets in the spring of 1995.

Mladic appeared in court wearing a white fishing hat that he removed upon sitting down. He did not argue with the judge as did Milosevic, or offer the pyrotechnic remonstrations of Karadzic two years ago, but rather appeared polite and conducted his exchanges in civil tones.

However, Mladic said he had read none of the charges against him, or any of the material the tribunal offered him, and said he would need more than 30 days to do so. Orie said that Mladic’s defense would not have to be complete in that time period, but the court would not extend the 30-day figure for initial work. Mladic appeared with a tribunal-appointed lawyer from Serbia that he said he did not know.

While Mladic described himself as “gravely ill,” he showed none of the lack of comprehension or ability to concentrate attributed to him by his lawyer in Serbia last week, in a failed effort to block his extradition. Later in the trial, he said he was “irritated” at tribunal staff for trying to assist him in walking and said he wanted to move about freely.

RECOMMENDED: Who is Ratko Mladic? Four key questions answered.

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