Ratko Mladic, 78, the former Bosnian Serb general known as the Butcher of the Balkans and sentenced to life in prison for the 1995 genocide of Srebrenica, perpetrated by his troops in that Bosnian city, will spend the rest of his days in jail. International justice confirmed the sentence on Tuesday. Thus concludes the judicial route followed against those directly responsible for the worst atrocity committed in Europe since World War II, since Radovan Karadzic, Mladic’s political boss, is already serving the same sentence in a British prison. Both were the ideologue and military arm of the executioner, respectively, of the death of some 8,000 Bosnian men and adolescents (Bosnians of Muslim religion) in the course of a mass execution that marked 26 years this July.
“Mladic’s acts were decisive for the commission of the crimes: without him they could not have been committed,” since he controlled the troops and also the police units in the days of the genocide, according to the ruling, issued by the decision-making body (a residual judicial mechanism tasked with the fringes of Balkan trials since the closure, in 2017, of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, ICTY).
Mladic was sentenced as early as 2017 to life imprisonment and appealed. This Tuesday, the judges have rejected all his arguments, and he has listened to them from the hearing room with attention and has looked at the camera when the life sentence has been confirmed. Then he shook his head in disappointment. It is not clear where he will serve the sentence, because the prison where he is now in The Hague, headquarters of the residual mechanism and before the ICTY, is only used until the processes are concluded. Serge Brammertz, chief prosecutor of both instances, hopes that the sentence will show that “justice can be delayed, especially international justice, but that does not mean that it is denied,” as he has said.
Mladic’s case includes the siege he subjected to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia Herzegovina between 1992 and 1996. It was the longest by a city (43 months) in the history of modern wars and Bosnian Serb troops killed there (with the help of his snipers) to about 14,000 people. The appeal ruling calls it a “campaign aimed at terrorizing the population”, adding that Mladic “has not shown that Sarajevo was a legitimate military target.” Serge Brammertz, chief prosecutor of the ICTY and now of the residual mechanism, hoped that the appellate judges would uphold the sentence of life imprisonment because “justice must be done to the victims.”
Mladic’s lawyers supported the appeal on the fact that the former general “cannot be held guilty of the crimes committed by his subordinates, because he did not order ethnic cleansing.”
For almost three decades, the families of the dead from Srebrenica have buried some of their remains every year. After the genocide, the corpses were put in mass graves, which were later opened to scatter them in other places to hide the massacre. The prosecutor also appealed, because the first sentence did not appreciate genocide, but war crimes and crimes against humanity, in several municipalities of Bosnia where there were also deaths, but the court has rejected it. Therefore, he does not appreciate genocide in those localities.
Mladic was arrested in May 2011 in the town of Lazarevo, about 80 kilometers from Belgrade, the capital of Serbia. He was staying with relatives and calling himself Milorad Komadic. He had just suffered a stroke and was unable to move his left body well, and although he recovered over time, he asked for the process to be canceled for health reasons. The ex-military man, respected by his troops and with a reputation as a good strategist in the Bosnian Serb Army, was on the run for a decade, but in the first years after the genocide he was exhibiting without problems in his country and enjoying protection. As time went by, and especially due to the EU’s refusal to study Serbia’s application for possible membership if its government did not hand it over earlier, their situation changed. He had to hide and ended up at the home of some relatives. There, he was detained by a group of Serbian special agents, who had been guarding the farm where he was hiding for two weeks.
The Netherlands was one of the ones that stood the most firmly in stopping the Serbian community path given its own life trauma. The Dutch Blue Cases were protecting civilians when Mladic’s troops entered in 1995. Outnumbered, without outside support and overwhelmed by the situation, they witnessed the separation of men from women, young children and the elderly. It was the previous step to genocide, since the adult and adolescent males did not return. In 2002, the Dutch government resigned after the report it had commissioned on Srebrenica outlined its moral responsibility – not blame – for what happened. The group of veterans representing the Dutchbat III, the battalion of the blue helmets prominent in the Bosnian population, indicates that between 20% and 30% of its members suffer from post-traumatic stress. In other similar detachments it happens to 6% of the military. In February of this year, the Executive assigned the symbolic figure of 5,000 euros for each of them.