LONDON – Bosnian Serb Gen. Ratko Mladic confronted the accusations against him at the opening of his war crimes trial Wednesday with contemptuous gestures to the court and the victims who had come to see him face justice for atrocities during the 1992-’95 Bosnian war.
Slowed by age and the hardships of 15 years on the run from the U.N. tribunal’s indictment, Mladic still mustered a hint of his trademark swagger as he entered the courtroom in The Hague, Netherlands, giving a thumbs-up to the judges and mocking applause for those watching from a glass-walled gallery.
At one point, Mladic responded to a defiant gesture from a spectator by drawing a finger across his throat in a slitting gesture, prompting censure from Presiding Judge Alphons Orie for “inappropriate interactions” with those watching the proceedings.
In a videotaped opening statement carried on the court’s website and watched by Balkan refugees around the world, lead prosecutor Dermot Groome laid out the case against Mladic, backed with chilling statements from witnesses recounting the horrors experienced a generation ago.
Groome backed the accusations with recordings from the 3 1/2-year siege of Sarajevo, including a 1993 tape on which Mladic was heard boasting that “every time I go by Sarajevo, I kill someone in passing. I kick the hell out of the Turks,” a disparaging reference to Bosnian Muslims.
Mladic faces 11 counts of genocide, murder, persecution, terrorism and hostage-taking, including the 1995 slayings of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the town of Srebrenica and the siege of the Bosnian capital that killed at least 10,000 people.
Mladic has refused to enter a plea, deeming the charges against him “obnoxious.” But he has denied the accusations.
The trial is expected to last more than a year and serve as the crowning achievement of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The court’s 10-year mandate expires in 2014, and with Mladic’s case now under way all 161 indictments issued by the court have been brought to trial.