Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic taunted Srebrenica survivors at the start of his trial for genocide yesterday, running his hand across his throat in a gesture of defiance to relatives of the worst massacre in Europe since World War II.
Mladic, 70, flashed a thumbs-up and clapped his hands as he entered the courtroom in The Hague, where he faces possible life imprisonment for allegedly leading the slaughter of 8,000 unarmed Muslim boys and men in Srebrenica in 1995.
In the packed public seating area, a mother of one of the Srebrenica victims whispered “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.”
Wearing a dark suit and tie, he sat, spectacles in hand, listening intently and jotting notes as prosecutors made their opening remarks.
Prosecutor Dermot Groome said Mladic and other Bosnian Serbs had divided the territory of the former Yugoslavia along ethnic lines and implemented a common plan to exterminate non-Serbs.
“The prosecution will present evidence that will show beyond a reasonable doubt the hand of Mr Mladic in each of these crimes,” he said.
Two dozen mothers of victims of the Srebrenica massacre gathered outside the court, some holding signs, one of which read: “Mladic, the greatest murderer of innocent people and children.”
Kada Hotic, who lost her 29-year son, husband and two brothers, said she was worried Mladic might not live long enough to hear the verdict, like the late Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, who died during his trial.
Mladic is 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.
He is accused of orchestrating not only the weeklong massacre in Srebrenica, at the time a UN “safe haven,” but also the 43-month siege of the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, in which more than 10,000 people were killed by snipers, machineguns and heavy artillery.
The list of charges stemming from his actions as the Serb military commander in the Bosnian war of 1992 to 1995 ranges from genocide to murder, acts of terror and other crimes against humanity.
However, Mladic, who was arrested in May last year after 16 years on the run, has dismissed the charges as “monstrous” and says he is too ill to stand trial.
The court entered a “not guilty” plea on his behalf.
The case has stirred up deep emotions in the Balkans and yesterday’s proceedings were broadcast live on big screens in Sarajevo.
“I hope that many of those who are disillusioned and believe that Mladic is a Serb hero will change their minds, and that the trial will demonstrate that he was just a criminal and a coward,” said Fikret Grabovica, president of the association of parents and children killed in the siege of Sarajevo.
“My father is gone and the agony continues for the victims,” said Bosnian Muslim Sudbin Music, who represents a group of wartime prisoners.
“Even if Mladic lives until the verdict, it will bring only mild satisfaction for the victims of Srebrenica and hundreds of other places in the Serb Republic, Music said.
Mladic has been angry and defiant during pre-trial hearings, heckling the judge, shouting and interrupting the proceedings.