United Nations war crimes judges on Tuesday upheld a genocide conviction and life sentence against former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic, rejecting all grounds of his appeal against a lower tribunal’s verdict.
He had been convicted by trial and ordered to serve life in prison on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, but appealed against both the verdict and sentence.
The appeals chamber “dismisses Mladic appeal in its entirety … dismisses the prosecution’s appeal in its entirety … affirms the sentence of life imprisonment imposed on Mladic by the trial chamber,” said a written summary of the appeals judgment.
Mladic, who had contested both the guilty verdict and life sentence at his trial, wore a dress shirt and black suit and stood looking at the floor as the appeals judgment was read out in court in The Hague.
“His name should be consigned to the list of history’s most depraved and barbarous figures,” chief tribunal prosecutor Serge Brammertz said after the verdict. He urged all officials in the ethnically divided region of former Yugoslavia to condemn the ex-general.
The verdict caps 25 years of trials at the ad hoc International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), which convicted 90 people. The ICTY is one of the predecessors of the International Criminal Court, the world’s first permanent war crimes court, also seated in The Hague.
“I hope that with this Mladic judgment children in [Bosnia’s Serb-run entity] Republika Srpska and children in Serbia who are living in lies will read this,” Munira Subasic, whose son and husband were killed by Serb forces that overran Srebrenica, said after the ruling, highlighting Serb genocide denial.
Up to 8,000 Muslims killed
Mladic was dubbed the “Butcher of Bosnia” for terrorizing the capital Sarajevo with a 43-month siege and presiding over the 1995 massacre of up to 8,000 Muslims in a United Nations-designated “safe area,” Europe’s worst atrocity since the Second World War.
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The Srebrenica slaughter was the grisly culmination of a 3-1/2-year war in which nationalist Bosnian Serb forces under Mladic pounded Sarajevo daily with artillery, tanks, mortars and heavy machine guns, killing 10,000.
The dead from Srebrenica were bulldozed into mass graves over four days in July 1995, some of which were dug up and relocated to remote mountains to hide evidence of the killings.
The goal, as determined by the ICTY, was “ethnic cleansing” — the forcible expulsion of Bosnian Muslims, Croats and other non-Serbs to clear Bosnian lands for a Greater Serbia.
In convicting him for the siege of Sarajevo and Srebrenica, the 2,500-page war crimes verdict said Mladic’s acts were “so instrumental to the commission of the crimes that without them, the crimes would not have been committed as they were.”
Despite the facts presented, many nationalist Serbs still regard him as a hero for cutting casualties on their side and trying to unite their people in one country.
Post-war Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik, now chairing Bosnia’s tripartite inter-ethnic presidency, denounced the verdict.
“It’s clear to us there is an attempt here to create a myth about genocide that never occurred,” Dodik said.
‘I do not recognize this court’
The tribunal, in a judgment upheld by appeals judges on Tuesday, found that Mladic together with late Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic and Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic were part of a criminal conspiracy.
“I do not recognize this court,” Mladic said at a hearing in The Hague in 2018. When he was sentenced to life in prison in 2017 on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, he shouted: “This is all lies, you are all liars!”
WATCH | Mladic reacts in 2017 to sentencing:
Karadzic, also convicted of genocide in 2016, and Mladic topped the ICTY wanted list for years after Western powers ended the war in 1995. Mladic lived securely, if discreetly, in Belgrade until a popular uprising toppled Milosevic in 2000.
Milosevic died in detention on March 11, 2006, a few months before a verdict in his own four-year tribunal trial. Karadzic is serving out his life sentence in a British prison.
“For me Mladic is a symbol of all the horrible crimes that happened during the war — our girls were raped, and boys killed, only because they were Muslim. Germans had Hitler, Serbs have Mladic,” said Munira Subasic, whose son and husband were killed by Bosnian Serb forces that overran Srebrenica.
“I watched him in the courtroom and he was proud of everything he had done. I saw no regrets on his face.”
The army Mladic created to fight against Bosnia’s 1992 secession from Serbian-led Yugoslavia was a model of ruthlessness and brutality.
Some of its prisoners suffocated in the heat after being forced to eat salt and refused water. Others were starved and raped in prison camps, made to jump off a bridge and shot or gunned down at night by the hundreds after being driven out of detention with gas.
Mladic had a cameraman film his blitz on the encircled enclave of Srebrenica, showing him haranguing Dutch UN peacekeepers who misguidedly accepted his solemn word that the inhabitants would be safe in his hands.
“We give this town to the Serb people as a gift,” he said to the camera, claiming the victory as revenge against Muslim Turks, who once held the area as part of the Ottoman Empire.
The next day, Mladic’s forces were filmed handing out sweets to children, promising their safe passage, while at the same time thousands of men and boys were being readied for execution.
When NATO tried in 1995 to rein in his forces with the threat of air strikes, his troops defiantly seized UN peacekeepers as human shields, chaining them to likely targets.
Mladic chosen to command Bosnian Serb army
Mladic was an officer in the old communist Yugoslav Federal Army (JNA) when the country began to break up in 1991.
When Bosnian Serbs rose in 1992 against Bosnia’s Muslim-led secession, Mladic was picked to command a new Bosnian Serb army that swiftly overran 70 per cent of the country.
Towns were besieged with heavy weapons that once belonged to the JNA. Villages were burned as 22,000 troops of a UN Protection Force stood by, with orders not to take sides.
A combination of Western pressure and covert American arms and training for Bosnian Muslims and Croats gradually turned the tide against Mladic’s army. Precision NATO strikes did the rest.
In Washington, the White House praised the work of the tribunals, which it said “reinforces our shared resolve to prevent future atrocities from occurring anywhere in the world.”
In June 2019, Mladic’s lawyer said his client was suffering from deteriorating brain function and cardiovascular trouble after a heart attack in 2013. “There is a great risk of a new stroke and a new heart attack,” Branko Lukic said.