UN Court Upholds War Crimes Conviction of ‘Butcher of Bosnia’ | Courthouse News Service
Friday, December 1, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

UN Court Upholds War Crimes Conviction of ‘Butcher of Bosnia’

The ex-Bosnian Serb military leader caused repeated disruptions during his trial, including shouting “shame on you” at the judges and drawing his finger across his throat while staring at a woman in the courtroom.

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — Appeals judges on a United Nations court upheld the war crimes and genocide conviction of former Bosnian Serb military leader Ratko Mladic on Tuesday. 

The man known as the “Butcher of Bosnia” has exhausted all attempts to overturn his life sentence for his role in the siege of the Bosnian capital city Sarajevo and the Srebrenica massacre in the 1990s. 

“Mr. Mladic has failed to demonstrate that the trial chamber has committed any error,” said Presiding Judge Prisca Matimba Nyambe of the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals, on a difficult video connection from her home country of Zambia. 

Outside the courtroom in The Hague, the Mothers of Srebrenica, a group of women whose husbands and sons were killed in the massacre, gathered and spoke loudly to reporters in an effort to drown out the few Mladic supporters who were present. The body parts of their relatives are still being located to this day. 

Indicted in 1995 by a U.N. tribunal established to prosecute war crimes that occurred during the 1992-1995 Bosnian War, Mladic was convicted in 2017 for 10 counts of murder, torture, forced deportation and attacking civilians, and was sentenced to life in prison. He oversaw the Bosnian Serb forces during the Bosnian War, a conflict that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia and killed more than 100,000 people.

The 79-year-old was present in court Tuesday and indicated that he understood the proceedings. He sat quietly, with his arms crossed while the verdict was read. He spent 16 years on the run 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!”

Mladic appealed his conviction, giving a rambling speech last August in which he accused the lead lawyer of the prosecution team, Laurel Baig, of being “satanic” and “speaking like a snake." He also claimed the “Western mafia,” the Vatican and former U.S. President George H. W. Bush had conspired to cause the war in Bosnia. His lawyers argued he had nothing to do with the crimes he was accused of, putting the blame on errant soldiers. 

“We do not deny that others…engaged in crimes, but they have nothing to with Mr. Mladic,” attorney Dragan Ivetic told the court during the appeals hearing last year. The defense also rejected the notion that what happened during the conflict was genocide. 

The five-judge panel rejected all of Mladic's grounds for appeal and upheld his life sentence, finding he had ordered ethnic cleansing and his troops were not acting independently.  

The decision was not, however, a unanimous one. The presiding judge herself dissented on a number of issues. She’d previously argued in a dissent in another case at the tribunal, the conviction of Bosnian military commander Zdravko Tolimir, that all of the evidence against Mladic was circumstantial.

“In fact, Mladic is welcoming, offering comforts to the attendees such as cigarettes, beer and sandwiches for lunch,” she wrote, describing a video of Mladic at a hotel in Srebrenica days before his troops massacred nearly 10,000 unarmed people. 

The presiding judge dissenting on nearly every decision in an appeal is "pretty unusual," said Iva Vukusic, a historian at Utrecht University, in an interview.

“She just has a really alternative view of what happened, and I just wonder how," Vukusic said. "I've watched this trial for so long, I know much of the evidence and I find it compelling.” 

For many, however, the tribunal was a concoction of the West to politically interfere in the region.

“A conviction doesn’t end divisions in the region,” chief prosecutor Serge Brammertz told reporters ahead of the verdict. “Today glorification and denial of genocide are very much stronger than five or 10 years ago — and I have been in this job for 13 years."

The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia was closed in 2017 and Tuesday’s ruling was delivered by the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals, the U.N. body that is also overseeing the winddown of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

The tribunal indicted 161 people over the Bosnian War, ultimately convicting 90. Radovan Karadzic, a former politician who served as the president of the state of Republika Srpska during the war, lost his final appeal in 2019. He will be transferred from the facility in the Scheveningen seaside resort where Mladic is also being held to a prison in the United Kingdom to serve his life sentence.

The appeals of two other top leaders – Jovica Stanisic, former head of the Serbian State Security Service, and his top deputy, Franko Simatovic – are currently being heard by the court. They were both acquitted in 2013, but the appeals court has ordered another trial. 

It is not yet known where Mladic will serve his sentence. 

Follow @mollyquell
Categories / Appeals, Criminal, International

Subscribe to Closing Arguments

Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.