Health concerns prompt early trial date for Mladic

The judges at the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal pulled a surprise today: the Mladic trial is scheduled to begin on March 27, 2012, significantly earlier than previously expected. However, presiding judge Alphons Orie also suggested that delays are possible, saying that the opening date is not "written in stone." The defense immediately objected, complaining that ...

Serge Ligtenberg/Getty Images
Serge Ligtenberg/Getty Images
Serge Ligtenberg/Getty Images

The judges at the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal pulled a surprise today: the Mladic trial is scheduled to begin on March 27, 2012, significantly earlier than previously expected. However, presiding judge Alphons Orie also suggested that delays are possible, saying that the opening date is not "written in stone." The defense immediately objected, complaining that they did not have enough time to prepare.

Today’s announcement from The Hague reflects the court’s concern over the Bosnian Serb military commander’s precarious state of health. According to his lawyers, Ratko Mladic suffered three strokes over the last twenty years, and is partially paralyzed on the right side of his body. He has difficulty focusing and is liable to veer off into angry tirades that have little to do with the topic at hand, particularly when he is tired.

In an attempt to secure "a fair and expeditious trial," the court earlier this month accepted a prosecution motion slashing the size of the indictment against him for genocide and other war crimes. He will now be tried for 106 separate incidents, rather than the 196 incidents specified in the original indictment. The court wants to avoid a repetition of the Slobodan Milosevic trial, which dragged on for four years until it was abruptly terminated in March 2006, because of the death of the defendant.

Mladic’s pre-trial appearances suggest that the judges are likely to have considerable difficulty controlling the proceedings. Under pressure from his family, Mladic has agreed not to represent himself, and will be represented by experienced trial lawyers. On the other hand, he has also shown that he is completely unpredictable, and is liable to erupt without warning when he feels that his legal rights have been infringed or his dignity undermined.

What Mladic has to say on his own behalf may turn out to be less interesting than the documentary record accumulated by the prosecution, which includes war diaries and tapes of conversations that he secretly recorded with Milosevic and other Serbian leaders. Serbian investigators told me that they seized nearly 100 such tapes while searching Mladic’s apartment in Belgrade, and have turned them over to the prosecution. Much of this material will be revealed for the first time at the trial.

It turns out that the Bosnian Serb general was an archival pack rat. He kept a very detailed record of his own actions and conversations during the five-year war in Bosnia, which will now become a key part of the prosecution case against him.

For his part, Mladic said that he was in no hurry to see his trial begin. "Maybe you’re in a hurry," he told Orie. "I’m not.  For me, time is of no consequence."

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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