UN judges on Wednesday sentenced former Bosnian Serbian commander Ratko Mladic to life imprisonment after finding him guilty of genocide and war crimes in the brutal Balkans conflicts over two decades ago.
But the man dubbed “The Butcher of Bosnia” was not present in court to hear the final verdict, having been dragged out of the courtroom after loudly accusing the judges of “lying”. And his son told reporters he planned to appeal.
Judges at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) found Mladic guilty on 10 counts including genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the 1992-1995 war. He was however found not guilty of one charge of genocide in the municipalities.
About 100,000 people were killed and 2.2 million displaced in the ethnic rivalries which tore apart Yugoslavia, with judges saying “ruthless” Bosnian Serb forces under Mladic’s command carried out “mass executions” and showed “little or no respect for human life or dignity.”
“For having committed these crimes, the chamber sentences Mr Ratko Mladic to life imprisonment,” presiding judge Alphons Orie said, adding the crimes were “amongst the most heinous known to human kind”.
After rumours he would not attend the hearing, Mladic, 74, who once left a trail of fear across Bosnia, gave a thumbs-up as he entered the courtroom in The Hague.
But in dramatic scenes he was later ordered to be dragged from the court, after accusing the judges of lying, when they refused to adjourn the hearing because of his high-blood pressure.
– ‘Tears in court’ –
Wednesday’s verdict has been long awaited by tens of thousands of victims across the bitterly-divided region, and dozens gathered early outside the courtroom, many clutching photos of loved ones who died or are among the 7,000 still missing.
It was an emotional day for victims, some of whom broke down in tears in the public gallery.
Munira Subasic, president of the Mothers of Srebrenica association, said she was “partially satisfied” with the verdict.
“It’s more than for (Radovan) Karadzic. But they didn’t find him guilty for the accusation of genocide in some villages,” she said.
And Edin Halilovic, 18, whose grandfather died in the 1995 Srebrenica genocide, said it had been important to attend the hearing. “My generation, and future generations, must never forget what happened to our families.”
“It’s a page turning in history, but not for me. Nothing can give me back my grandfather”, she added.
But in Srebrenica there were tears of joy. “Mladic will die in The Hague! I’m so happy that justice has been done!” said Nedziba Salihovic, who lost her husband, father and son in the 1995 massacre.
Chief ICTY prosecutor Serge Brammertz also hailed the verdict as a “milestone” for the court and for international justice.
“Mladic’s guilt is his and is alone,” he said. “Others think Mladic is a hero, this judgement demonstrates that nothing could be further from the truth.”
“Mladic will be remembered by history for the many communities and lives he destroyed,” he said.
– Darkest episode –
Caught after 16 years on the run, Mladic was found guilty of the 1995 massacre in northeastern Srebrenica, where troops under his command slaughtered almost 8,000 Muslim men and boys.
The killings, in which the victims were marched away, shot in the back and dumped in mass graves, was one of the darkest episodes in the conflict, and has been called the worst atrocity on European soil since World War II.
Once a brutish military commander who strode around in combat fatigues, Mladic was also found guilty of “personally directing” a 44-month campaign of sniping and shelling in which 10,000 people died in Bosnia’s capital Sarajevo.
Mladic was also found guilty of taking hostage more than 200 NATO military personnel and keeping them as human shields to prevent NATO air strikes against the Bosnian Serb army.
After a five-year trial in which almost 600 witnesses testified and more than 10,000 exhibits were presented, the court handed down a rare life term.
But defence lawyers slammed his trial as “political”, and his son, Darko Mladic, said his father would appeal.
“This sentence is unjust and contrary to the facts and we will fight it on appeal to prove that this judgement is wrong,” Darko Mladic told reporters.
“Today justice has been replaced by war propaganda,” he added.
His lawyers insist Mladic senior is in ill-health, and had called during the hearing for it to be adjourned, claiming he was in “hypertensive crisis” due to high blood pressure.
International reaction was swift. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic urged fellow Serbs to look to the future rather “than suffocating in tears of the past”.
The European Union urged Balkan countries to “honour the victims” of war crimes by working towards reconciliation, while the UN called the verdict a “momentous victory for justice”.