Ratko Mladic could be on his way to face a war-crimes tribunal in The Hague as early as Monday, possibly joining his former ally Radovan Karadzic on trial for some of the worst horrors of the Balkan wars.
The ex-Bosnian Serb army commander known for his cruelty and arrogance began issuing demands from behind bars yesterday, eating strawberries, calling for a TV set and Tolstoy novels, and regaining some of his trademark hubris after the pre-dawn raid in a Serbian village the day before that ended his 16 years on the run.
Now a dishevelled 69-year-old, his family claim he’s too ill to stand up to the rigours of a genocide trial and that he is not guilty of crimes including his alleged role in the worst atrocity in Europe since the Second World War, the massacre oft 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Bosnia’s Srebrenica enclave.
But Serbia’s war crimes court ruled yesterday that Mladic was fit to stand trial and that conditions had been met for him to be handed over to the United Nations tribunal in the Netherlands.
A defence lawyer said Mladic would appeal against the decision on Monday, but the former fugitive could be extradited within hours if it is rejected.
His defence is demanding that an “independent medical commission” examines Mladic – preferably one from Russia, a historical friend of the Serbs. Instead the government dispatched the health minister, a former friend, who deemed him stable.
The United Nations Security Council, expressing “deepest sympathy” for all those who lost loved ones in former Yugoslavia during the conflicts of the 1990s, said members shared the hope that Mladic’s transfer to the court “will help to bring the Western Balkans region closer to reconciliation and to their European perspective”.
The security council agreed with the Serb government that the search for the tribunal’s last fugitive, Goran Hadzic, a former leader of Serbs in Croatia, should remain “a key priority”.
Mladic commanded of the Bosnian Serb army during the country’s 1992-95 war, which left more than 100,000 people dead and drove another 1.8 million from their homes. Thousands of Muslims and Croats were murdered, tortured or expelled in a campaign to purge the region of non-Serbs.
Mladic’s ruthlessness was legendary: “Burn their brains!” he once bellowed as his men pounded Sarajevo with artillery fire. So was his opinion of himself. He nicknamed himself “God”, and kept goats which he was said to have named after Western leaders he despised.
He eluded the net of war crimes investigators for years after his 1995 indictment by the UN war crimes court on charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity – until going out into his garden for a pre-dawn walk.
New details have emerged of the raid, revealing it was more of a shot in the dark than a pinpoint operation. Police had been conducting similar operations throughout Serbia for years.
Two dozen masked, black-clad members of a team of special police had no specific intelligence that Mladic was inside a relative’s yellow brick house in Lazarevo, a village they were visiting for the first time.
Speaking on condition of anonymity Serbian police officials said Mladic identified himself immediately after his arrest, handing over two pistols that he was carrying without a fight.
“Good work,” Mladic told the officers, according to Serbian police chief Ivica Dacic. “You found the one you were looking for.”
A police photo of Mladic showed him looking hollow-cheeked and shrunken after a decade and a half on the run, a far cry from the beefy commander he once was.
The photo, taken moments after his arrest in a tiny northern Serbian village shows a clean-shaven Mladic with thinning hair and wearing a navy blue baseball hat. He looks up with wide eyes, as if in surprise.
But by yesterday, after a night’s sleep, Mladic was digging in his heels, refusing to remove his cap, demanding he receive money from his military pension, and requesting a visit to the Belgrade grave of his daughter Ana, who killed herself in 1994, said a judicial official.
He received a visit from his son Darko, who said if Mladic was extradited he would argue that he was innocent of war crimes.
“His stand is that he’s not guilty of what he’s being accused of,” Darko Mladic told reporters outside the Belgrade court.
The chief prosecutor of the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal said he was considering whether to put Mladic on trial together with former Bosnian Serb political leader Karadzic.
Serge Brammertz said that ideally he would have both men in one trial, facing charges of jointly orchestrating Serb atrocities throughout the 1992-95 Bosnian war.
Karadzic’s ongoing trial started in 2009 and a Mladic trial would not begin for months, but Mr Brammertz said he was confident he has “strong and credible evidence” against him.