Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb commander known as the “Butcher of Bosnia”, was found guilty of genocide on Wednesday in a verdict that will strengthen the claim of a special UN tribunal to have brought justice to victims of the ex-Yugoslav conflicts.
The Mladic judgment was the last big case to be decided by the 24-year-old International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia before it winds up operations at the end of this year.
The court sentenced Mladic, 74, to life imprisonment — its toughest penalty — after convicting him of committing genocide in Srebrenica, where 8,000 mainly Muslim men were murdered by Bosnian Serb forces in 1995. The massacre was the worst atrocity in Europe since the second world war.
Charges against Mladic also covered the siege of Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, in which more than 11,000 civilians died.
Mladic was tried on two counts of genocide and five of crimes against humanity including persecution, murder and the taking of hostages. He was found not guilty of a second charge of genocide carried out in six Bosnian provinces from 1992 to 1996.
The charges and verdicts were similar to those in the case of Radovan Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb political leader, who received a 40-year sentence last year. The judgment means the heads of both the civilian and military structures responsible for the atrocities have now been convicted.
Alphons Orie, the presiding judge, said Mladic was guilty of some of the “most heinous crimes known to humankind”. Mladic was removed from the courtroom before the verdict after screaming: “This is all lies, you are all liars”. He had earlier left the chamber for what his family said was a blood pressure test.
Mladic had pleaded not guilty to the charges, and his lawyers said he would appeal.
Mladic’s trial, which he denounced as the proceedings of a “satanic court”, took five years and heard from more than 500 witnesses. He had spent 16 years on the run before being discovered in a Serbian village in 2011.
His conviction, following that of Karadzic, will help the court and its supporters argue that it has largely, if belatedly, fulfilled the mandate given when it was set up in 1993 — the first such court to be convened since the post-second world war Nuremberg trials.
That is despite setbacks including the surprise acquittal on war crimes charges last year of Vojislav Seselj, the Serbian ultranationalist leader, and the death of Slobodan Milosevic, Serbia’s former strongman president, in 2006 before his trial concluded.
Paddy Ashdown, a former UN High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, said of the Mladic judgment that the “murderer of Srebrenica has been brought to justice”.
“Those who value the rule of law in war will welcome this. Those who bled in the Bosnian wars have retribution,” added Lord Ashdown.
The ICTY has been criticised for overly long and ambitious cases, for sometimes allowing political grandstanding by defendants and not preventing occasional abuses such as intimidation of witnesses.
But lawyers say it has strengthened case law, which will help both other international courts established in recent years and local courts in the Balkans that continue to work on hundreds of lower-level prosecutions.
The tribunal has also amassed millions of pages of evidence and testimony.
“This will provide a generation of historians and social scientists with material to analyse the events in the former Yugoslavia,” said Andy Aitchison, an expert on the ICTY at the University of Edinburgh.
But the judgment will do little to heal divisions in the western Balkans. While cheers were heard in Sarajevo, where the verdict was broadcast live on large TV screens, Mladic’s supporters in eastern Bosnia watched the judgment under posters describing him as a hero.
Many Serbs reject his prosecution as a biased western attempt to incriminate the entire Serb nation.
Despite some efforts at acknowledging the massacres — Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic attended a commemoration in Srebrenica in 2015 — hardline elements continue to deny the court’s findings of genocide and reject the ICTY as anti-Serb.
Serge Brammertz, the court’s chief prosecutor, insisted the Mladic judgment was not a verdict against all Serbs. “Mladic’s guilt is his and his alone,” he said.
But Ana Brnabic, Serbia’s prime minister, this month told the Financial Times the tribunal’s legacy would not be reconciliation. She said it had targeted Serbs unfairly, and allowed atrocities by Croat and other non-Serb military leaders to go unpunished:
“Seventy-six per cent of the accused [at ICTY] were Serbs. The Serbs got over 900 years in prison and five life sentences. The next after Serbia is Croatia with 128 years in prison in combined sentences,” Ms Brnabic said.
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