Mladic, 70, flashed a defiant thumbs-up as he entered the courtroom — the last of the main protagonists in the Balkan wars of the 1990s to go on trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague.
A hero to Serb nationalists, the “Butcher of Bosnia” to his Muslim and Croat victims, the general eluded justice for 16 years until his capture in a cousin’s farmhouse in Serbia last May.
The list of 11 charges stemming from his actions as the Serb military commander in the Bosnian war of 1992-95 ranges from genocide to murder, acts of terror, and crimes against humanity.
He is accused of orchestrating not only the week-long massacre of 8,000 unarmed Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica but also the 43-month siege of the Bosnian capital Sarajevo, in which more than 10,000 people were killed by snipers, machine guns, and heavy artillery.
Mladic, who refused to enter a plea, cuts a much frailer figure now than his bullish, strutting wartime persona — his defence lawyer said he had suffered three strokes and a heart attack.
In the public gallery, Munira Subasic, whose 18-year-old son, husband, and brothers were killed in Srebrenica, stared at him from behind a glass barrier, crossing her wrists to imitate handcuffs.
Mladic stared back and drew a hand across his throat. Presiding judge Alphons Orie promptly called a brief recess and ordered an end to “inappropriate interactions”.
“I thought I would see at least some remorse in his eyes when I came here,” Subasic said. “But instead I saw his bloodthirstiness. I don’t know how he can live with what he did, with killing so many people.”
Prosecutor Dermot Groome, beginning a two-day opening statement, said Mladic and other Bosnian Serbs had been implementing a grand plan to eliminate non-Serbs from large areas of Serbia, Bosnia, and Croatia.
“The prosecution will present evidence that will show beyond a reasonable doubt the hand of Mr Mladic in each of these crimes,” he said.
Bosnian Muslim leader Bakir Izetbegovic said he hoped the trial could at least start closing a gulf between Bosnia’s Serb and Croat-Muslim halves that shows little sign of closing, 17 years after the war ended.
“Half of Bosnia was cleansed of non-Serbs... They wanted to erase all traces and evidence of the existence of others from this part of the territory, and under the command of Ratko Mladic they succeeded,” he said.
“Many people in Bosnia are still not ready, 16 years after the war ended, to face the truth... This is the first step in the process of reconciliation.”
In court, prosecutors screened footage of bodies piled up on the streets of Sarajevo and people running in terror from the Serb onslaught. “There can be no doubt that Mladic controlled the shelling of Sarajevo,” Groome said.
“Mladic participated in a campaign of sniping and shelling against the besieged city of Sarajevo in order to spread terror among its civilian population.”
The prosecution case alone is projected to last 200 hours, with testimony from 411 witnesses, and defence lawyers say they have not had have enough time to review the huge case file.