Former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic went on trial Wednesday on 11 counts of war crimes and genocide during the Bosnian war in the 1990s, which witnessed the Srebrenica massacre and the bloody siege of Sarajevo. The 70-year-old military commander, who appeared defiant on the opening day of his trial, taunted Srebrenica survivors running his hand across his throat in a rude gesture at the start of the proceedings.
The indictment against Mladic, who is the last of the key leaders in the Balkan wars of the 1990s to face an international trial in The Hague, detailed the 44-month long and bloody siege of Sarajevo that killed more than 10,000 people in sniping and shelling.
The indictment said that Mladic willingly joined Serbian politicians in devising an ethnic cleansing policy in 1992 wherein his military scanned the towns and villages of Bosnia, driving out tens of thousands of Muslims and Croatians to create a land for Serbs, the New York Times reported. More than 200,000 Muslims and Croats died in the 1992-1995 conflict, including nearly 8,000 Muslim men and boys slaughtered at Srebrenica in 1995 - considered Europe's worst massacre since the World War II.
Mladic faces charges of genocide, complicity in genocide, persecutions, extermination and murder, deportation and inhumane acts, unlawfully inflicting terror upon civilians, murder, cruel treatment, attacks on civilians and the taking of hostages.
As the trial began, Mladic who is held responsible on two counts of genocide, was seen applauding and gesturing a thumbs-up to supporters in the public gallery. Members of the Mothers of Srebrenica group kept a vigil outside the court before the trial began.
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In the packed public gallery, a mother of one of the Srebrenica victims was reported whispering vulture several times as prosecutors opened their case.
Later, Mladic made eye contact with one of the Muslim women in the audience, running a hand across his throat, in a gesture that led presiding Judge Alphons Orie to hold a brief recess and order an end to inappropriate interactions, Reuters reported.
Mladic served as the commander of Bosnian Serb forces during the civil war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. He spent more than 15 years in hiding before he was captured in Serbia in May last year. Officials arrested Mladic in Lazarevo, a village north of the Serbian capital, following information given by his former comrades. Mladic reportedly surrendered to the authorities, though he possessed two handguns at the time of arrest.
Serbia had offered a reward of 10 million euros for information on the most wanted criminals in the Balkans, whose capture was a condition for granting Serbia EU membership. EU leaders gave Serbia full candidate status in March at a summit in Brussels.
Born in Kalnovik, Mladic's life was shaped by the ethnic conflicts in which his father was killed by the Croat Nazis when he was two years old. After graduating from a military academy, he joined the Communist Party in Yugoslavia and served as a soldier in Yugoslavia's military before the nation was dissolved in the early 1990s. He went on to become the leader of Bosnian Serb forces during the violent conflict in Bosnia.
The gray-haired former military commander was dressed in a blue civilian suit and sported an impassive look as the prosecution accused him of mass killing.
By the time Mladic and his troops murdered thousands in Srebrenica, prosecutor Dermot Groome said, they were well-rehearsed in the craft of murder.
Mladic, who claimed to be not guilty of wrongdoing, however, has refused to enter a formal plea, the BBC reported.
During the pre-trial hearings last year, Mladic heckled the judge and interrupted the proceedings due to temperamental issues.
The whole world knows who I am, he said at a pre-trial hearing. I am General Ratko Mladic. I defended my people, my country... now I am defending myself.
The judiciary has rejected defense calls to delay the trial proceedings, though there were indications that it could be delayed.
Presiding Judge Orie said the court was considering postponing the presentation of evidence, scheduled to begin on May 29, due to errors by the prosecution in disclosing evidence to the defense. Groome has said he would not oppose a reasonable adjournment.
The number of initial charges against Mladic has been reduced to almost half to speed up the trial.