A preview of the case against Mladic
As I have mentioned in previous posts, the Ratko Mladic trial is unlikely to get underway before the fall of 2012. But we are already getting a foretaste of how it will go from the trial of former Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic, which has just entered its final, Srebrenica phase. Like Mladic, Karadzic is ...
As I have mentioned in previous posts, the Ratko Mladic trial is unlikely to get underway before the fall of 2012. But we are already getting a foretaste of how it will go from the trial of former Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic, which has just entered its final, Srebrenica phase. Like Mladic, Karadzic is accused of mass murder and genocide stemming from charges that he approved the cold-blooded executions of some 8,000 Muslim men and boys in July 1995 following the capture of Srebrenica.
In a recent interview in Belgrade, Mladic defense lawyer Milos Saljic told me he planned to challenge prosecution claims that his client personally witnessed some of the executions. If Mladic can be proven to have been present when the executions took place, it would of course destroy his claim to have had nothing to do with the killing of Muslim prisoners of war. Saljic says that the former Bosnian Serb commander has an alibi: he was in Belgrade, and his military headquarters of Han Pijesak, when the massacres occurred.
Last week, Karadzic challenged the evidence of a protected prosecution witness, identified only as KDZ 039, who claimed to have seen Mladic at an execution site near the village of Orahovac on the evening of July 14, 1995. (He was one of two survivors of the execution.) According to Karadzic, Mladic was in the Belgrade area that day for meetings with Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic and European peace envoy Carl Bildt. He had further meetings in Belgrade the following day with other international envoys. You can read a chronology of his movements here, at my U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum website.
Responding to Karadzic, prosecutors cited an entry in Mladic’s war diary (seized from his Belgrade apartment) stating that the meeting with Milosevic and Bildt did not begin until 9.15 p.m. In theory, this would have left the Bosnian Serb commander time to witness the executions in Orahovac and fly by helicopter to Belgrade. But the schedule would have been very tight.
It is possible that Mladic flew directly from the execution site to his meeting with western envoys. It is also possible that the prosecution witness is confused about the timing of the executions. This would be quite understandable. Terrified for his own life, he was in no condition to remember precise details of what took place. It is quite possible that the executions he refers to took place a little earlier, allowing more time for Mladic to get from Bosnia to Belgrade. If either version is true, it is an extraordinary demonstration of the contempt that the Bosnian Serb general held for the international community. This would be roughly analogous to Hitler personally participating in the executions of thousands of Jews, and holding courteous diplomatic talks with Neville Chamberlain the same day.
It is also possible that the prosecution witness is mistaken, and Mladic was not present at the Orahovac execution site. We will probably have to wait for the Mladic trial to test the documentation of the alibi claimed by his defense lawyer. In this and previous appearances before the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal, the witness has consistently claimed that he saw Mladic a total of six times between July 12 and 14.
If Saljic can show that Mladic flew to Belgrade much earlier on July 14, it would strike a blow to the prosecution case that he personally organized the Srebrenica executions. On the other hand, it would not fatally undermine it. Although no one else has placed him at the scene of the massacres, there remains a mountain of evidence that he directed the entire operation from the very beginning.
Why the prosecution insists on the anonymity of witness KDZ 039 is a puzzle. His testimony is virtually identical to a Srebrenica survivor named Hurem Suljic, who has given extensive interviews over the years to western journalists and government officials. I have embedded above an extended interview he gave to Britain’s Channel Four News in October 1995, three months after Srebrenica. (His testimony begins at 1:46; his claims to have seen Mladic are at 5’36".) Suljic also spoke to U.S. human rights envoy John Shattuck and is a central figure in David Rohde’s seminal 1997 book, Endgame: The Betrayal and Fall of Srebrenica, Europe’s Worst Massacre Since World War II.
Michael Dobbs is a prize-winning foreign correspondent and author. Currently serving as a Goldfarb fellow at the Committee on Conscience of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Dobbs is following legal proceedings in The Hague. He has traveled to Srebrenica, Sarajevo and Belgrade, interviewed Mladic’s victims and associates, and is posting documents, video recordings, and intercepted phone calls that shed light on Mladic's personality. Twitter: @michaeldobbs
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