THE HAGUE (Reuters) - The U.N. tribunal on war crimes in former Yugoslavia hands down its verdict on Wednesday in the genocide trial of Ratko Mladic, the ex-Bosnian Serb general accused of ordering the massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica.
Prosecutors demanded a life sentence for Mladic, 74, who was the Bosnian Serb army commander in Bosnia’s 1992-95 war and is also charged with crimes against humanity over the siege of Sarajevo in which 11,000 civilians died from shelling and sniper fire.
The Srebrenica slaughter was Europe’s worst atrocity since World War Two. Mladic faced 11 charges in total and pleaded not guilty to all of them. He is expected to appeal if convicted.
Srebrenica, near Bosnia’s eastern border with Serbia, had been designated a “safe area” by the United Nations and was defended by lightly armed U.N. peacekeepers. But they quickly surrendered when Mladic’s forces stormed it on July 11, 1995.
The Dutch peacekeepers looked on helplessly as Serb forces separated men and boys from women, then sent them out of sight on buses or marched them away to be shot.
A bronzed and burly Mladic was filmed visiting a refugee camp in Srebrenica on July 12. “He was giving away chocolate and sweets to the children while the cameras were rolling, telling us nothing will happen and that we have no reason to be afraid,” recalled Munira Subasic of the Mothers of Srebrenica group.
“After the cameras left he gave an order to kill whoever could be killed, rape whoever could be raped and finally he ordered us all to be banished and chased out of Srebrenica, so he could make an ‘ethnically clean’ city,” she told Reuters.
The remains of Subasic’s son Nermin and husband Hilmo were both found in mass graves by International Commission of Missing Persons (ICMP) workers. The ICMP have identified some 6,900 remains of Srebrenica victims through DNA analysis.
Mladic’s lawyers argued that his responsibility for murder and ethnic cleansing of civilians by Serb forces and allied paramilitaries was never established beyond reasonable doubt and he should get no more than 15 years if convicted.
The “Butcher of Bosnia” to his enemies, Mladic is still seen as a national hero by compatriots for presiding over the swift capture of 70 percent of Bosnia after its Serbs rose up against a Muslim-Croat declaration of independence from Yugoslavia.
Prosecutors said the ultimate plan pursued by Mladic, Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic and Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic was to purge Bosnia of non-Serbs - a strategy that became known as “ethnic cleansing” - and carve out a “Greater Serbia” in the ashes of old federal Yugoslavia.
In arguing for Mladic to be imprisoned for life, prosecutor Alan Tieger said anything else “would be an insult to victims and an affront to justice”.
Mladic was indicted along with Karadzic in 1995, shortly after the Srebrenica killings, but evaded capture until 2011.
His trial in The Hague took more than four years in part because of delays due to his poor health and will be the last case - barring appeals - to be heard by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).
“From the legal point of view we expect the court to release the general,” Mladic’s son Darko told Reuters. “During the trial we have not seen any evidence against him. What we are worried about now is his health.”
Mladic has suffered several strokes, though U.N. judges rejected a flurry of last-minute attempts by defence lawyers to put off the verdict on medical grounds.
His lawyers faced an uphill battle, given a mountain of evidence of Serb atrocities produced in previous trials. Four of Mladic’s subordinates have received life sentences. Karadzic was convicted in 2016 and sentenced to 40 years, and is appealing.
Milosevic, who defended himself, died in prison in 2006 before a verdict was reached in his case.
Mladic’s lawyers argued that Sarajevo was a legitimate military target as it was the main bastion of Muslim-led Bosnian government forces. They also asserted that Mladic left Srebrenica shortly before Serb fighters began executing Muslim detainees and was later shocked to find out they had occurred.
However, prosecutors argued that under war crimes law, even if Mladic did not directly order the killings, he should have known what his subordinates were doing, and would be liable for failing to punish those who committed atrocities.
Fikret Alic, a Muslim whose picture as an emaciated young man behind the barbed wire of the prison camp at Trnopolje, Bosnia became a symbol of the horrors of the war, traveled to the court to hear Wednesday’s ruling. He said he believed Mladic will be convicted of genocide.
“I am expecting that this general in the Yugoslav army and later the Bosnian Serb army — that this criminal who committed the atrocities that happened to us — is not seen as a hero.”
The ICTY indicted 161 people in all from Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo. It has convicted 83, more than 60 of them ethnic Serbs.
Reporting by Toby Sterling, Stephanie van den Berg and Ivana Sekularac; editing by Ralph Boulton