THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — Plagued by technical difficulties at the outset, two days of hearings began Tuesday in an appeal of the genocide conviction of a former Bosnian Serb general known as the “Butcher of Bosnia.”
A frail-looking Ratko Mladic – who was found guilty before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia of 10 counts of war crimes and genocide for the worst massacre in Europe since World War II – spent the day playing with his face mask while his lawyers argued his 2017 conviction should be overturned.
The defense has raised objections based on the 78-year-old’s health since the trial began in 2012. Mladic’s lawyer Dragan Ivetic said at the start of the hearing, “My presence is under a continued objection.”
“I am unable to meaningfully gain instruction from Mr. Mladic, or be assured that he is able to meaningfully follow proceedings,” Ivetic told the mostly empty courtroom in The Hague.
The appeals chamber of a special United Nations court already ruled, after a status hearing last month, that the appellate hearings could proceed despite the defense’s allegations that Mladic is suffering from dementia. The hearings had already been delayed twice, once for Mladic to undergo surgery and a second time because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Journalists and the public were not allowed in the courtroom for the hearing but could watch via live stream. Three of the five judges were also not present, instead connected by a video link.
“This is nonsense,” Presiding Judge Prisca Nyambe muttered at one point when her connection to the courtroom cut out again.
The defense spent most of Tuesday arguing – in one-hour increments with one-hour breaks in between to allow for coronavirus-related cleaning – nine grounds for the appeal, including that judges in the trial court were biased against Mladic and convicted him of so-called “unscheduled incidents,” or crimes the prosecution never charged him with.
Defense attorneys also argued their client was convicted for crimes that took place outside of the military command and were based on testimony from discredited witnesses.
“I submit the conviction of Mr. Mladic for genocide was made out of thin air,” Ivetic said.
Towards the end of the day, Mladic addressed the court to complain that the one-hour cleaning breaks were too long. Between the delays due to technical issues and the cleaning schedule, the hearing ran hours behind.
Once they were finally able to address the court, the prosecution team denied the claim that the trial was unfair and said the defense did not produce any evidence to dispute the conviction.
“Ratko Mladic is not a war hero, he is a war criminal,” prosecution lawyer Laurel Baig said. “He abused his vast military power to deliberately target the civilian population, destroying lives, families, and communities.”
Mladic oversaw the Bosnian Serb forces during the Bosnian War, a conflict that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia and killed more than 100,000 people between 1992 and 1995. Among other crimes, he was convicted of ordering the Srebrenica massacre, where Bosnian Serb forces murdered more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys who had taken refuge in a supposed U.N. safe zone.
Mladic was indicted in 1995 by the U.N. tribunal established to prosecute war crimes that occurred during the conflict. The tribunal was closed in 2017 and the appeal is being heard by International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals, the U.N. body that is also overseeing the winddown of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.
The former general was on the run for 16 years before being captured in 2011 while heading out for a walk in his garden in the village of Lazarevo, north of the Serbian capital Belgrade.
During his five-year trial, Mladic remained defiant. At one point during the trial, he drew his finger across his throat while looking directly at a Bosnian woman who was in the courtroom. He had to be removed from the courtroom during his sentencing after shouting at the judges, “Everything you said is pure lies. Shame on you!”
The hearing will continue Wednesday, when the court will hear arguments in the prosecution’s appeal over an 11th charge that Mladic was acquitted of. Mladic himself will be given 10 minutes to speak at the end of the day.