(New York) - The arrest of notorious fugitive Ratko Mladic almost 16 years after his indictment for genocide shows that no one is beyond the reach of the law, Human Rights Watch said today. Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb army commander, is charged with 11 counts of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes, including the massacre of up to 8,000 Bosnian men and boys after the fall of Srebrenica in July 1995, the worst atrocity on European soil since the Second World War.
"Only hours before his forces slaughtered thousands of civilians in Srebrenica, Ratko Mladic was handing out candy to Muslim children and promising their parents safe passage," said Richard Dicker, director of Human Rights Watch's International Justice Program. "After more than a decade and a half on the run, justice has finally caught up with the man who personified the brutality of the war in Bosnia."
In a press conference, President Boris Tadic of Serbia confirmed that Mladic had been arrested in the early hours of May 26, 2011, on "Serbian soil." Mladic is being transferred to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague (ICTY).
Mladic's capture comes almost three years after Serbia's arrest of Radovan Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb civilian leader. Both men have been indicted on genocide charges for the Srebrenica massacre and for war crimes and crimes against humanity for the 43-month siege of Sarajevo. They have also been charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity. In July 2008, Serb authorities arrested Karadzic and transferred him to The Hague to stand trial before the ICTY.
The arrest of Mladic comes as EU countries are considering the opening of formal membership negotiations with Serbia. The EU has stressed that Belgrade must cooperate fully with the ICTY before talks can start. The fact that Mladic and Karadzic are now in custody shows what principled EU engagement can deliver, Human Rights Watch said. The ICTY Prosecutor is due to present his report on Serbia's cooperation with the tribunal, among other issues, to the UN Security Council on June 6.
The authorities in Serbia had previously claimed to have no information about Mladic's presence in Serbia. The ICTY prosecutor and independent Serbian media have alleged that Mladic was in Serbia under the protection of elements of the army outside effective control of the civilian authorities. Authorities in Belgrade acknowledged that Mladic received a Yugoslav army pension until 2002, and they have detained several people accused of helping hide him. An opinion poll conducted in Serbia released earlier this month indicated that 51% of respondents did not support Mladic's transfer to The Hague.
"The Serbian government has shown considerable courage in arresting Mladic in the face of fierce opposition by hardliners," said Dicker. "Belgrade's commitment to justice should be commended."
Human Rights Watch urged the Serbian government to continue cooperating with the Yugoslav tribunal, including by surrendering Goran Hadzic, the only remaining ICTY fugitive, who is believed to be within Serbia's reach. Hadzic, a Croatian Serb, is charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role in the persecution of Croat and other non-Serb civilians in 1991 and 1992 in parts of Croatia controlled by rebel Serbs. Such cooperation also includes surrendering key documents and archives for ongoing and upcoming trials. Human Rights Watch said that it is crucial that the EU maintain pressure on Serbia to cooperate.
The long-awaited arrests and surrender of Mladic and Karadzic come as the ICTY is in the process of implementing its completion strategy, as mandated by the UN Security Council.
As of the end of 2009, the UN Security Council indicated that the tribunal should complete all of its work, including appeals, by the end of 2014. Although the ICTY prosecutor has amended the indictment against Mladic to speed up proceedings, it is unlikely that Mladic's trial will be completed by that date. Human Rights Watch urged the UN Security Council to adopt a flexible approach in deciding the tribunal's completion dates.
"It is essential that governments give the Yugoslav tribunal the support that it needs to guarantee fair and effective trials for the indicted architects of the Srebrenica massacre," said Dicker.
Mladic and Karadzic were first indicted by the ICTY in July 1995 on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes alleged to have occurred in several cities across Bosnia and Herzegovina. In a separate indictment in November 1995, the ICTY charged both Mladic and Karadzic with genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes based on the mass execution of civilians after the fall of Srebrenica.
The ICTY delivered its first genocide conviction against General Radislav Krstic in August 2001, sentencing him to 46 years in prison. Krstic was second in command to Mladic of the Bosnian Serb troops at Srebrenica. In April 2004, the ICTY Appeals Chamber, while reducing Krstic's sentence to 35 years, confirmed that genocide had occurred in Srebrenica. On June 10, 2010 the ICTY also convicted Vujadin Popovic (Chief of Security in the Drina Corps) and Ljubisa Beara (Chief of Security of the Bosnian Serb Army Main Staff) on several accounts including genocide, extermination, murder and persecution and sentenced to life imprisonment.