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In court with Ratko Mladic

The former Bosnian-Serb military commander appears proud and defiant, not once showing signs of regret as he stands trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Last modified: 17 May 2012 17:04

I've spent the past two days sitting in the public gallery of a UN court in the Hague, watching the opening proceedings of the trial of Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian-Serb military commander who faces 11 charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes, including genocide. 

We were separated only by a glass screen, so I've had ample opportunity to study him, and his reactions to the evidence put forward by the prosecution. 

Ratko Mladic is frail and gaunt, only a shadow of the strutting, stocky general that we remember from the 1992-95 Bosnian War. His health deteriorated significantly during his last years in hiding. His lawyer says he suffered three strokes and a heart attack. In the war years he had a ruddy complexion, but these days he is pale and he appears to have some difficulty using his right arm. He's dressed in a smart grey suit, and he listens to the proceedings attentively, often taking notes. Occasionally he removes his glasses, and rubs his temples. 

Much of the evidence, including video clips, is harrowing. We watched pictures of mutilated bodies on the streets of Sarajevo, and corpses being exhumed from mass graves in Srebrenica. Not once has Mladic appeared to show any regret, much less remorse. Instead, he seems to be proud and defiant. I get the impression that he is itching to tell his own side of the story. 

We were shown a video from July 1995, in which Mladic is shouting at a terrified Dutch UN Commander shortly after his men had captured Srebrenica. In the courtroom, Mladic laughed and clapped as he watched himself on screen. 

Women who lost husbands and sons in Srebrenica are sitting in the gallery. They cannot always contain their feelings; they hiss abuse at Mladic, and sometimes they curse him loudly. At one point Mladic turned to one of the Bosnian women, and drew his finger across his throat. The judge had to intervene, warning both Mladic and the women not to provoke each other.

Justice moves slowly at the UN court for the former Yugoslavia. The trial has now been postponed until further notice, because of a failure by the prosecution to supply evidence in good time to the defence. Lawyers expect this trial to last for years. 

Outside the court, I chat to Axel Hagerdorn, who is representing the bereaved women from Bosnia, who are known as "The Mothers of Srebrenica". Axel says that his clients' main concern is that Mladic stays alive until the end of the trial. "We want him to see justice" he says, "that's all".

Follow Barnaby Phillips on twitter: @BarnabyPhillips