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The fall of Ratko Mladić: the Butcher of Bosnia sentenced to life in prison

Photo: Reuters

Ratko Mladić, a Bosnian Serb former military leader during the Bosnian War from 1992 to 1995, on 22 November 2017 was sentenced to life in prison after being found guilty of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. Mladić came to prominence in the Yugoslav Wars, initially as a high-ranking officer of the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) and subsequently as the Chief of Staff of the Army of Republika Srpska in the Bosnian War. The JNA forces under his command participated in the Croatian War in 1991, notably during in the successful Siege of Kijevo, which was the first instance of use of the ethnic cleansing in the Yugoslav Wars, and also during the battle of Šibenik (codenamed Operation Coast-91) in an attempt to cut off Dalmatia from the rest of Croatia, which resulted in a failure.

In May 1992, Bosnia and Herzegovina declared its independence and the Bosnian Serb Parliament voted to create the Army of Republika Srpska (VRS), appointing Mladić as Commander of the Main Staff of the VRS. One month Bosnia's secession from Yugoslavia, Mladić and his commanders blockaded the city of Sarajevo, shutting off all traffic in and out of the city, as well as water and electricity. This began the four-year Siege of Sarajevo, the longest siege in the history of modern warfare. The city was bombarded with shells and sniper shooting. In April 1993, the United Nations had declared the besieged enclave of Srebrenica, the town in Drina Valley of northeastern Bosnia, a "safe area" under UN protection. Still, UNPROFOR's Dutch battalion in Srebrenica failed to prevent the town's capture by the VRS in July 1995, and the subsequent genocide. At Srebrenica over 40,000 Bosniaks who had sought safety there were expelled, and an estimated 8,300 Bosniak men and boys were murdered on Mladić's order.

Two days after the massacre was over, Mladić was indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) for genocide, crimes against humanity, and numerous war crimes in Sarajevo and elsewhere, and in November the same year, the charges were expanded to include war crimes for the attack on the UN-declared safe area of Srebrenica. In July 1996, the Trial Chamber of the ICTY confirmed all counts of the original indictments, finding there were reasonable grounds to believe he had committed the alleged crimes, and issued an international arrest warrant. A fugitive from the ICTY, Mladić was suspected to be hiding either in Serbia or in Republika Srpska. Initially, he lived freely in Belgrade, but after the arrest of Slobodan Milošević in 2001, he went into hiding and was still protected by Serbian security services and the army. Despite the fact that Serbian government offered millions of euros for information leading to Mladić's capture and arrest, he nevertheless managed to remain at large for nearly sixteen years.

Mladić was finally arrested in May 2011 in Lazarevo, a village in northern Serbia, and within five days he was extradited to The Hague. The trial of Mladić was presided over by judge Alphons Orie of the Netherlands, with two assisting judges, Bakone Justice Moloto of South Africa and Christoph Flügge of Germany. Proceedings began in June 2011 with a listing of the charges against Mladić, which included: (1) Genocide against a part of the Bosniak and Bosnian Croat national ethnical and or religious groups with the object of permanently removing Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats from the territories of Bosnia and Herzegovina claimed as Bosnian Serb territory, (2) Genocide against Bosniaks in Srebrenica by killing the men and boys of Srebrenica and forcibly removing the women, young children and elderly, (3) Persecutions as a crime against humanity including murder, torture, beatings and rape against Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats, (4) Extermination and murder of Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats in the municipalities, (5) Murder of Bosniaks in Srebrenica, (6) Murder of civilians in Sarajevo, (7) Forcible deportation of Bosniaks, Bosnian Croats or other non-Serbs from the municipalities, (8) Forcible deportation of Bosniaks, Bosnian Croats or other non-Serbs from Srebrenica, (9) Terror and unlawful attacks against civilians, (10) Sniping and shelling against civilians in Sarajevo, and (11) Hostage-taking of United Nations military observers and peacekeepers.

Mladić's trial formally opened in May 2012 and the court's verdicts were made on 22 November 2017. Verdict proceedings had been interrupted when his legal team attempted to delay procedure, arguing that Mladić's blood pressure was too high to continue, but this was dismissed by the judges. After outbursts from Mladić, judge Alphons Orie ordered his removal from the courtroom, telling him he could monitor proceedings by audio and video. The verdicts were read out in his absence: he was found guilty of 10 of the 11 charges, being acquitted of the first item on the list above. Judge ruled that the perpetrators of the crimes committed in Srebrenica intended to destroy the Muslims living there, and that Mladić carried out and personally oversaw a deadly campaign of sniping and shelling in Sarajevo. "The crimes committed rank among the most heinous known to humankind," Orie said. Mladić has been sentenced to life in prison and has very little chance of ever being released.

Filip Vuković

Filip Vuković is a Serbian politologist and investigative journalist from Belgrade, covering the western Balkan area for Serbian, English and Italian outlets. His focus is on nationalism, ethnic tensions and economic policy in the post-Yugoslav area. Currently, he is preparing a PhD dissertation at the University of Padua.