Updated 10:50 am, May 16, 2012
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By Paul Cunningham, Europe Correspondent, in The Hague
Former Bosnian Serb army chief Ratko Mladic arrived into the chamber today with a look of defiance.
He may face 11 counts of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, but he gave a thumbs-up sign to the public gallery and clapped his hands. Dressed in a blue suit and shirt with a green tie, he donned his glasses and studied documents.
At the opening of the trial, presiding Judge Alphons Orie announced that he was unpleasantly surprised to find out that the prosecution had made an error in disclosing documentation to the defence and he was considering an adjournment. The prosecutor accepted that the error impacted the defence’s legal team to prepare for the trial. However, Judge Orie decided that the prosecution’s opening statement could still be read into the record. And so the long-awaited trial began.
The indictment runs to 38 pages. It has been amended four times – most significantly when the number of individual crimes Mladic was accused of were reduced by nearly half in order to speed-up the trial.
UN prosecutor Dermot Groome did not simply read out the details of the charges, but laid out a chronological account of what happened and Mladic’s alleged role. He became the chief military Bosnian Serb leader on 11 May 1992 when appointed Commander of the Main Staff of the Bosnian Serb Army, or VRS.
Mr Groome started by giving a detailed account of how a Muslim boy who lost his father, uncle and other relatives in ethnic cleansing in Vecici 1992. The aim was to secure land by forcing the Muslim people out of areas considered to be strategic to Bosnian Serb forces.
The prosecutor argued even by that date of 1992, Mladic was starting career that by 1995 meant he “was well-rehearsed in murder” for Srebrenica – the eastern Bosnian town in which 8,000 unarmed men and boys were killed. He then spoke about the siege of Sarajevo in which 11,000 people died over nearly four years. Mr Groome accused Mladic of being involved in the â€śoverarching criminal purposeâ€ť to ethnically cleanse Bosnia.
Slowly, the prosecution is beginning to outline its case by using video, photographs, maps and documents. It maintains the evidence proves that Mladic participated in a joint criminal enterprise to permanently remove Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats from the territories claimed by Bosnian Serb forces. At one point, a tape recording of Mladic was played to the court in which he is heard saying: â€śWhoever holds the territory draws the maps. The people and its army have drawn the map of Republika Srpska.â€ť
The trial could last anything up to two years. The trial of Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic has been ongoing since 2009. Mladic denies the charges which are being read out today in court. He had sought an adjournment of six months, but this was denied. He stated he was a â€śsick manâ€ť who was unfit for trial. The court decided otherwise. And so after 16 years on the run, and over a year in detention, he sits in a United Nations court in The Hague accused of some of the worst atrocities since WWII.
There is a large media presence. Some journalists, like me, reported on the events in Bosnia Herzegovina that are now the subject of the trial. Some of the Mothers of Srebrenica are also here holding placards demanding justice.
Last year, some Mladic supporters also turned-up outside the pre-trial hearings – waving flags and calling for his release. There is no such presence today. Twenty years on from being appointed the top Bosnian Serb commander, Ratko Mladic is being called to account.