LONDON — Bosnian Serb Gen. Ratko Mladic confronted the accusations against him at the opening of his war crimes trial in The Hague on Wednesday with contemptuous gestures to the court and the victims who had come to see him face justice for atrocities during the 1992-95 Bosnian war.
Slowed by age and the hardships of 15 years on the run from the indictment by the United Nations tribunal, Mladic still mustered a hint of his trademark swagger as he entered the courtroom, giving a thumbs-up to the judges and mocking applause for those watching from a glass-walled gallery.
At one point, Mladic responded to a defiant gesture from a spectator by drawing a finger across his throat in a slitting gesture, prompting censure from Presiding Judge Alphons Orie for “inappropriate interactions” with those watching the proceedings.
In a videotaped opening statement carried on the court’s website and watched by Balkan refugees around the world, lead prosecutor Dermot Groome laid out the case against Mladic, backed with chilling statements from witnesses recounting the horrors experienced a generation ago.
Broome backed the accusations with recordings from the 3 1/2 -year siege of Sarajevo, including a 1993 tape on which Mladic was heard boasting that “every time I go by Sarajevo, I kill someone in passing. I kick the hell out of the Turks,” a disparaging reference to Bosnian Muslims.
“The world watched in disbelief that in neighborhoods and villages within Europe a genocide appeared to be in progress,” Groome told the court, detailing the brutal campaign of “ethnic cleansing” carried out by the army of the Republika Sprska under Mladic’s command.
Muslim and Croat civilians “were targeted for no other reason than that they were of an ethnicity other than Serb — their land, their lives, their dignity attacked in a coordinated and carefully planned manner,” Groome said. “In some locations, this attack arose to the levels of genocide.”
Mladic faces 11 counts of genocide, murder, persecution, terrorism and hostage-taking for his role in the war, including the 1995 slayings of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the town of Srebrenica and the siege of the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, that killed at least 10,000 people.
The massacre in Srebrenica came after Bosnian Serb forces entered the town, separated the Muslim males from the women and small children and took them away. Victims’ bullet-riddled bodies were later found in mass graves.
Mladic has refused to enter a plea, deeming the charges against him “obnoxious.” He has denied the accusations.
The 70-year-old defendant wore a gray suit for the opening of his trial, expected to last more than a year and serve as the crowning achievement of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. The court’s 10-year mandate expires in 2014, and with Mladic’s case now underway, all 161 indictments issued by the court have been brought to trial.
The judges are expected to hear from more than 400 witnesses, some of whom also testified in the trials of the Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic and Slobodan Milosevic, Yugoslavia’s former president. Milosevic died of a presumed heart attack during his trial for war crimes in 2006.
Survivors of the Bosnian bloodshed that cost at least 100,000 lives and displaced 2 million people flocked to The Hague to cheer Mladic’s belated arrival in the dock, though only about a dozen were able to gain entry to the crowded courtroom.
Members of the Mothers of Srebrenica group hoisted placards outside the courthouse that read, “We want justice for the victims of Srebrenica.”
Times news assistant Stobart reported from London and staff writer Williams from Los Angeles.