Ratko Mladic went on trial at the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal today, 20 years after his troops began ethnically cleansing Bosnian towns and villages of non-Serbs.
The ailing 70-year-old is accused of 11 counts of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, and his appearance at the UN court in The Hague marked the end of a long wait for justice for survivors of the 1992-95 war that left 100,000 people dead.
The trial is also a landmark for the UN court and international justice - Mladic is the last suspect from the Bosnian war to go on trial there.
In Bosnia, leaders and victims hailed a historic day in the country’s recovery from its war wounds, but some Serbs lamented Mladic’s trial.
Bosnian president Bakir Izetbegovic said: “First of all we are expecting from this trial the truth. The truth and then justice for the victims, for the families of the victims. It is the worst period of our history.”
But in the former Serb stronghold of Pale, people who gathered to watch the trial on TV applauded as they saw their general enter the courtroom.
Mladic, wearing a suit and tie, was looking healthier than at previous pre-trial hearings, but was still a shadow of the burly, strutting wartime strongman.
He suffered a stroke while in hiding and has had other health problems since arriving in The Hague.
He gave a thumbs-up and clapped toward the court’s public gallery as the trial got under way. He occasionally wrote notes and showed no emotion as prosecutors began outlining his alleged crimes.
One woman in the public gallery called him a “vulture” as prosecutors began two days of laying out their case for judges.
After a break in proceedings, presiding judge Alphons Orie rebuked Mladic and the public about “inappropriate interactions” and said he could shield Mladic behind a screen if it continued.
Earlier, Orie said the court was considering postponing the presentation of evidence, due to start on May 29, due to “errors” by prosecutors in disclosing evidence to the defence. Prosecutor Dermot Groome said he would not oppose a “reasonable adjournment”.
Mr Groome began his opening statement by focusing on the plight of a 14-year-old boy whose father and uncle were among 150 men murdered by Bosnian Serb forces in November 1992, part of a pattern of atrocities aimed at driving Muslims and Croats out of territory coveted by Serbs.
He said: “The world watched in disbelief that in neighbourhoods and villages within Europe a genocide appeared to be in progress,.
Mr Groome added that Mladic’s forces continued such killings through to 1995, when they massacred 8,000 Muslim men in the Srebrenica enclave, the worst mass murder in Europe since the Second World War.
The prosecutor signalled that his team would use Mladic’s own words against him in the trial, drawing on a stash of wartime diaries, radio intercepts and appearances Mladic made on television during the war.
In one such appearance, Mr Groome showed television images of Mladic inspecting Serb artillery dug into hills surrounding the capital, Sarajevo, and denying involvement in war crimes – foreshadowing his defence in The Hague that his actions were intended only to protect Serbs.
“I did not take part in any crimes. I have only defended my people,” Mladic said.
However in another video, he is heard boasting: “Whenever I come by Sarajevo, I kill someone in passing ... I go kick the hell out of the Turks.”
Mr Groome also showed judges video of the bloody aftermath of a notorious shelling of a market in Markale, in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo, that killed dozens of people.
He said all the attacks were part of an “overarching” plan to ethnically cleanse large parts of Bosnia of non-Serbs.
Mladic has refused to enter pleas, but he denies wrongdoing, saying he acted to defend Serbs in Bosnia. If he is convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
His lawyer, Branko Lukic, said Mladic’s spirits were up ahead of the trial.
“He’s feeling better,” he said. “But for a man in the state he is – he’s a man in generally bad shape – he’s feeling pretty good.”
Mladic’s trial opened as the case against his former political master, Radovan Karadzic, has reached its halfway stage at the same court. Both men face virtually identical 11-count indictments alleging they masterminded the ethnic cleansing of Bosnia.
The man accused of fomenting conflicts throughout the Balkans in the 1990s, former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, died in his cell in The Hague in 2006 before judges could deliver verdicts in his trial.
Karadzic and Mladic were indicted together 17 years ago, but their cases were split when Karadzic was captured in Serbia in 2008 and transferred to The Hague. It was another three years before Mladic was arrested in a village near Belgrade, ending 15 years as one of the world’s most-wanted fugitives.