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Ratko Mladic goes on trial for Bosnia war crimes

Ratko Mladic, the Serb military commander in the Bosnian war, has gone on trial for the worst crimes against humanity that Europe has witnessed since the second world war.

Facing 11 charges including two counts of genocide, the 70 year-old former general appeared unrepentant on Wednesday. When he entered the courtroom at a war crimes tribunal in The Hague, he gave a sarcastic thumbs-up and a slow handclap to the public gallery. At one point, he looked directly at a survivor of the Srebrenica massacre and drew his finger across his throat.

“We visited him before the trial and tried to persuade him to be quiet, not to say anything at all,” Branko Lukic, his defence lawyer said. “He told me he made that sign at a woman in the gallery who provoked him by showing him the middle finger. He is like that. He does the same to me.”

After the break, Mladic complained about gestures from the public gallery. The judge told him to focus on the trial while warning the gallery he would put up a screen up around the court if there was any further “interaction”.

For more than four hours, the prosecution at the international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, outlined its case. Dermot Groome, one of the two senior prosecutors, said that the evidence would show that Mladic, as the head of the Bosnian Serb general staff, was directly responsible for the atrocities committed. More than 100,000 people died in the conflict, mostly Muslims and Croats, including tens of thousands of civilians.

“The prosecution will present evidence that will show beyond a reasonable doubt the hand of Mr Mladic in each of these crimes,” Groome said. In his statement, he drew on the defendant’s published directives to his troops during the war, as well his wartime notebooks seized by Serbian police in a Belgrade flat where he had been hiding during his 16 years on the run.

Groome’s also highlighted the individual tragedies that lie beneath the statistics, like the 14 year-old boy whose father and uncle were among 150 men from the same community murdered by Bosnian Serb forces in November 1992. He also told the story of a seven-year-old boy in Sarajevo killed by a Serb sniper while out with his mother gathering firewood. The bullet passed through her stomach and into his head. Lying wounded on the street, she thought her boy was simply following her instructions to take cover. It was only when UN soldiers lifted up his limp body that she realised he was dead.

Groome said that by the time Mladic’s forces stormed the supposedly UN-protected enclave of Srebrenica in 1995, killing 8,000 Muslim men and boys, “they were well rehearsed in the craft of murder.”

He added that Srebrenica was “different in scale, but no different in intent” from other atrocities carried out by Bosnian Serb forces. “It was no different in its utter inhumanity.”

One of the survivors in the gallery, Zumra Sehomerovic, said: “I am proud when I see Mladic finally behind that glass, in front of the court. It has come after 16 years but there is no statute of limitations on the crimes he committed”.

Her husband and three other family members were killed at Srebrenica and she said she saw the general up close when he appeared at the scene to “reassure” the terrified captives.

“When I look at him today, I see the man I saw then in 1995. I was standing a metre from him,” Sehomerovic said. ” There he was with his sleeves rolled up, and he was telling us everything would be OK. He was giving chocolate to the children and said he said he just needed to keep some of the men for a prisoner exchange but that everybody would be together again soon. And then he killed them all.”

Groome said the documentary evidence pointed to an “overarching” plan, set out in a list of six war aims drawn up by Mladic, aimed at ethnic cleansing hundreds of thousands of Muslims and Croats and carving out an ethnically pure Serb homeland in western and eastern Bosnia.

The prosecution statement also focused on the 44-month siege of Sarajevo. Groome quoted Mladic from wartime documents and interviews in which he appeared to boast about “putting a ring around the dragon’s head of Sarajevo”.

At one point the general is quoted as saying: “I have blocked Sarajevo from all four sides. There is no exit. It is in a mousetrap.”

Lukic said that he intended to cross-examine prosecution witnesses carefully, but would let the prosecution present its entire case before making his own opening statement.

“Our strategy is not to reveal our strategy and to keep our cards close to our chest,” Lukic said, but pledged to present “new evidence” when his turn came. He predicted that the trial could take more than four years to complete.

In court, Mladic cut a much diminished figure from the bluff, stocky and ruddy-faced military commander he was in the war. He survived for 16 years on the run, at first with the help of the Serbian army and the Serbian government in Belgrade, but since the election of a reformist president, Boris Tadic, in 2004, the layers of protection fell away. Mladic was cut off from funds and had been reduced to hiding in the garden shed of a relative in a Serbian village when he was caught last year.

The Bosnian Serbs’ wartime leader, Radovan Karadzic, was caught in 2008, living under a false name and posing a new-age healer. He is already midway through his trial at The Hague. Slobodan Milosevic, the former Yugoslav president who orchestrated the Balkan wars from Belgrade, died of a heart attack in his cell in 2006 before a verdict could be delivered in his case.

At the start of Wednesday’s hearing the presiding judge, Alphons Orie of theNetherlands, said the court was considering postponing the presentation of evidence, due to start on 29 May, owing to material omitted by the prosecutors when it disclosed evidence to the defence. Groome said he would not oppose a “reasonable adjournment”.