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Ratko Mladic to address judges directly in Srebrenica appeal

An aerial view of the Memorial Center in Potocari near Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina, 6 July 2020

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More than 6,500 victims are buried at the Srebrenica Genocide Memorial

Former Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic is due to address judges in The Hague as part of an appeal against his conviction for genocide and crimes against humanity.

He was jailed for life in 2017 for his part in the massacre at Srebrenica in 1995 when about 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed.

Mladic’s lawyers have argued he was far away from the town when it happened.

The second and final day of the hearing opened on Wednesday.

It is taking place at a UN court which is considering appeals and remaining cases from the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), which ended in 2017.

Mladic’s health problems and coronavirus restrictions delayed proceedings earlier.

Meanwhile, the prosecution is urging judges to convict Mladic on a further genocide charge.

The Srebrenica massacre, carried out in an enclave supposed to be under UN protection, was the worst atrocity in Europe since World War Two.

What did the court hear?

Mladic, 78, entered the courtroom wearing a disposable face covering and sat down behind a Perspex screen.

Three of the four appeals judges are participating remotely via video link due to coronavirus-related restrictions.

Prosecution lawyer Laurel Baig said Mladic had been convicted of some of “the most heinous crimes of the 20th Century”.

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Mladic is to speak on Wednesday

“Mladic was in charge of the Srebrenica operation, Srebrenica was Mladic’s operation,” she said, as quoted by AFP news agency.

“And the chamber was right to conclude that he was responsible for these crimes. He used the forces under his command to execute thousands of men and boys.”

A defence lawyer, Dragan Ivetic, denied his client had played a role in the massacre, saying: “Mr Mladic is not a villain. He was someone who at all times was trying to help the UN do the job it couldn’t do in Srebrenica at a humanitarian level.”

Ratko Mladic is watching from behind a three-sided transparent screen.

The prosecutor described how his forces had ethnically cleansed Srebrenica: “Their goal, to make the enclave disappear, to empty it, to make it Serb territory…” And how, on 11 July, after tens of thousands of Muslims had fled for their lives, Mladic conducted a victory walk through the town, calling it Serb Srebrenica and announcing: “Now the time has come to take revenge on the Turks.”

An estimated 8,000 mostly Muslim men and boys were separated from their terrified families, loaded on to trucks, taken to fields, dams and warehouses, and executed, by gunfire or grenade. Their bodies were thrown into holes or mass graves, then some dug up, moved by heavy machinery and reburied elsewhere in an effort to hide the slaughter.

I met one of the survivors a few years ago inside one of the warehouses in Srebrenica. He described standing among rows and rows of men, asked to come forward line by line. As the row ahead of them fell in front of firing squads, he survived by hiding under a pile of bodies and pretending to be dead until Mladic’s men had gone.

Every now and then the former military general catches a glimpse of himself on the screen in front of him in court, he smiles, rubs his wedding ring or fixes his hair but otherwise appears to show no response to the catalogue of crimes he stands accused of committing.

While these hearings have been plagued by Covid-related technical hitches, the pursuit of justice is critical.

Ratko Mladic is considered a war hero by supporters back home in Serbia. Survivors of the atrocities believe it is crucial he goes down in history with a final legal judgment of his life and work.

The defence also argued that the proceedings should not go ahead until a medical team had reviewed Mladic’s capacity to take part.

The man called the “Butcher of Bosnia” earlier needed an operation to remove a benign polyp on his colon, and had a request for a delay on health grounds rejected ahead of the hearing.

Technical issues have dogged the hearing with some of the participants appearing by video link.

The convict complained that the hour-long breaks between sessions – to allow for the courtroom to be ventilated and cleaned – were too long for him to spend in a small isolation room and the judges responded by reducing them to 40 minutes.

The verdict in the appeal hearing is not expected until the spring.

What was Mladic convicted of?

Mladic was the military commander of Bosnian Serb forces against Bosnian Croat and Bosniak armies. He went on trial at the ICTY in 2012, and was convicted in 2017.

The court found he had “significantly contributed” to the genocide at Srebrenica.

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Media captionWhat happened at Srebrenica? Explained in under two minutes

But he was cleared of a second count of genocide in other municipalities and the court will hear an appeal by prosecutors against this acquittal this week.

How did the genocide happen?

Between 1991 and 1999 the socialist state of Yugoslavia broke up violently into separate entities covering the territories of what were then Serbia and Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia and Slovenia.

Of all the conflicts, the war in Bosnia was the bloodiest as, ethnically and religiously, it was the most divided.

Yugoslav army units, withdrawn from Croatia and renamed the Bosnian Serb Army, carved out a huge swathe of Serb-dominated territory in Bosnia.

More than a million Bosnian Muslims and Croats were driven from their homes in ethnic cleansing, and Serbs suffered too. By the time the war ended in 1995, at least 100,000 people had been killed.

At the end of the war in 1995, Mladic went into hiding and lived in obscurity in Serbia, protected by family and elements of the security forces.

He was finally tracked down and arrested at a cousin’s house in rural northern Serbia in 2011 after 16 years on the run.

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