Mr Mladic was commander-in-chief of the Bosnian Serb army that carried out the worst massacres and ethnic cleansing in Europe since the second world war. He is charged with more than 70 instances of genocide, as well as with torture and psychological and sexual abuse carried out in detention camps throughout the war.
After more than a decade in hiding in Serbia, Mr Mladic was arrested and extradited last May to stand trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
With his bullish jaw protruding in a frown, the 70-year-old former soldier, who has refused to enter a plea, sat nodding and taking occasional notes as Dermot Groome, the prosecutor, opened the case against him.
Prosecutors are making an expansive case, charging that the entire project to carve out an independent Bosnian Serb Republic was a criminal enterprise, since it aimed to deport or kill Muslim and Croat residents from territory marked for Serb control. They say Mr Mladic, along with Radovan Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb leader, was one of the ringleaders.
Detailing atrocities including the shelling and sniping of civilians and the execution of captives, Mr Groome said they were not accidental but part of Mr Mladic’s “strategic aims”.
“Common to these crimes was that they all related to an overarching criminal purpose: to permanently remove Bosnian Muslim and Bosnian Croat inhabitants from the territories claimed by Bosnian Serb leaders,” Mr Groome said.
Mr Mladic declined to make a statement during Wednesday’s proceedings.
“We decided not to say anything today because we knew everything that would be said would be very hostile to Mr Mladic,” his Serbian defence counsel, Branko Lukic, told reporters after the hearing.
Mr Mladic, appearing trim and healthy in a blue-grey suit and checked tie, has aged and lost his bristle of grey hair. But he was still recognisable as the brusque, smiling commander seen on international television screens in 1995, overseeing Bosnian Republic artillery firing on Sarajevo and separating men from women and children in the freshly conquered enclave of Srebrenica.
The trial has raised sharp emotions in Bosnia, Serbia and also in the Netherlands where it is taking place. Dutch troops under a UN flag were protecting the so-called safe zone in Srebrenica when Mr Mladic’s forces over-ran it and the surrender and subsequent massacre humiliated the Dutch government.
Mr Lukic asked last week that the court’s Dutch presiding judge, Alphons Orie, be disqualified from hearing the case, saying he would be perceived as biased. The court’s president rejected the motion.
Prosecutors will take up the massacres at Srebrenica when the hearings continue on Thursday.
Mr Mladic repeatedly nodded and occasionally appeared to smirk as he listened to the evidence. That angered some of the dozen-odd Bosnian Muslims who had travelled to The Hague to see the trial.
“Mladic is the worst criminal of the 20th century, after Hitler,” said Ziad Smadlovic, 50, whose father and two brothers were among some 8,000 Muslim men massacred by Mr Mladic’s forces after they over-ran Srebrenica in July 1995. “Whatever the maximum penalty is, that’s what he should get.”
Satko Mujagic, who was interned during the war in the Omarska concentration camp and lives in the Netherlands, said the most important consequence of Mr Mladic’s trial would be to strengthen what he called the “fragile” peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
“There are too many Serbs who don’t know what happened, because their media cut out the news,” Mr Mujagic told reporters. “You have to recognise what happened, as Germans did with the Holocaust, in order to go forward as human beings.”