A judge suspended Ratko Mladic's genocide and war crimes trial indefinitely Thursday after prosecutors failed to disclose thousands of documents to the former Bosnian Serb military chief's defense team — a ruling that could delay the trial for months.
Presiding judge Alphons Orie said he was delaying the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal case due to "significant disclosure errors" by prosecutors, who are obliged to share all evidence with Mladic's lawyers.
The announcement is a significant setback for the court in one of its highest profile cases, its final trial to focus on atrocities committed during the 1992-95 Bosnian war, which left over 100,000 dead.
Orie said judges will analyze the "scope and full impact" of the error and aim to establish a new starting date "as soon as possible." The presentation of evidence was supposed to begin later this month.
Prosecutors had already acknowledged the errors and did not object to the delay. Mladic's attorney has asked for a six-month delay.
Mladic is accused of commanding Bosnian Serb troops who waged a campaign of murder and persecution to drive Muslims and Croats out of territory they considered part of Serbia. His troops rained shells and snipers' bullets down on civilians in the 44-month siege of the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo.
He has refused to enter pleas, but denies wrongdoing. If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
Court spokeswoman Nerma Jelacic told The Associated Press that much of the material that the defense did not get focused on witnesses who prosecutors had intended to call to testify before the court takes a three-week summer break beginning in July.
Prosecutors acknowledged that the error "could impact on the fairness of the trial to the accused," Jelacic said.
The tribunal published a letter Thursday from prosecutors to Mladic's lawyer that explained the missing documents were not uploaded onto an electronic database accessible to defense lawyers. "We sincerely apologize for the inconvenience that these missing materials ... may have caused to you," the May 11 letter says.
Earlier Thursday, prosecutors wrapped up their opening statement in the trial by recounting in painstaking and chilling detail the systematic murder by Bosnian Serb forces commanded by Mladic of thousands of Muslim men and boys in Bosnia's Srebrenica enclave in July 1995, Europe's worst massacre since World War II.
"In a period of only five days, from July 12-16, 1995, the armed forces of [Bosnian Serb leader] Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic expelled the civilian population of Srebrenica and murdered over 7,000 Srebrenica men and boys," prosecutor Peter McCloskey said. Other estimates range up to 8,000 dead.
Mladic's army "carried out their murderous orders with ... dedication and military efficiency," he added.
Mladic, the 70-year-old former commander of the Bosnian Serb army, showed no emotion on the second day of his genocide trial as McCloskey showed judges a fleeting video of what he said were the bodies of executed Muslim men piled in front of a bullet-riddled wall.
On the first day of the trial Wednesday, the court's public gallery was crowded with victims' relatives who had angrily exchanged hand gestures with Mladic through the bulletproof glass separating them.
On Thursday, most of the survivors had left and videos showing a bullish Mladic strutting through the deserted streets of Srebrenica and berating the commander of Dutch UN peacekeepers were greeted largely with silence and occasional murmurs.
One woman, Hatidza Mehmedovic, wept in the court's lobby during a break in the proceedings.
"I buried both of my sons and my husband. Now I live alone with memories of my children," she said. "I would never wish even Mladic to go through what I go through. Not Mladic or Karadzic. Let God judge them."
McCloskey outlined how, after overrunning Srebrenica, Mladic's forces summoned buses and trucks from across Bosnia to transport women and girls out of the enclave. The men and boys were then driven to remote locations and gunned down by firing squads, their bodies plowed into mass graves.
McCloskey said the remains — sometimes no more than a couple of bones — of 5,977 victims have been exhumed so far. He showed photographs of an exposed mass grave to underscore the point that the victims were not war casualties.
One photo showed a skull, its teeth exposed and its eyes covered by a blindfold. Another showed a pair of hands bound with a strip of cloth behind a body's back.
Mladic fled into hiding after the war and spent 15 years as a fugitive before international pressure on Serbia led to his arrest last year.
Delays are not unusual in complex international trials that often take years to complete, but are a major concern in trials with elderly defendants who, like Mladic, have a history of health problems.
The trial of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic dragged on for four years due to delays mainly related to his poor health. He then died of a heart attack in 2006 before judges could deliver their verdict on charges that he masterminded conflicts across the Balkans throughout the 1990s.
The recently finished trial of former Liberian President Charles Taylor also was delayed by months after he fired his defense team on the trial's opening day.