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(Brussels) – The opening of the trial of Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb wartime military commander, is a salient reminder that justice catches up with those accused of atrocity crimes. Mladic’s trial for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide is scheduled to begin on May 16, 2012, before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague.

“Victims have waited nearly two decades to see Ratko Mladic in the dock,” said Param-Preet Singh, senior counsel in the International Justice Program at Human Rights Watch. “His trial should lay to rest the notion that those accused of atrocity crimes can run out the clock on justice.”

On May 11, Mladic’s defense team filed a last-minute motion to disqualify one of the tribunal’s judges, alleging possible bias, and to postpone the start of the trial. No decision has been issued. The defense had previously asked the judges five times to postpone the trial, but all five requests were refused. 

The ICTY has charged Mladic, the commander of the Bosnian Serb Army during the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia, with two counts of genocide. One count relates to the killings, rapes, torture, and other acts committed by Bosnian Serb forces against Bosnian Muslims and Croats, beginning in 1992, the first year of the war. The second genocide count relates to his alleged role in orchestrating the slaughter by Bosnian Serb forces of at least 7,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in July 1995, in the Bosnian city of Srebrenica. The Srebrenica genocide was the worst crime on European soil since World War II.

The start of the Mladic trial follows on the heels of the verdict in April by the Special Court for Sierra Leone, which found Liberia’s former president, Charles Taylor, guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity for atrocities committed in Sierra Leone. Both trials are evidence of the growing international trend to hold perpetrators of atrocities to account, no matter how senior their position, Human Rights Watch said.

As with all international criminal tribunals, the ICTY lacks its own police force and relies on state cooperation to arrest and surrender fugitives. The arrest of Mladic in May 2011 was a significant victory for international justice because it followed consistent European Union pressure on both Serbia and Croatia to cooperate fully with the ICTY as a condition for closer ties.

The arrest already demonstrates concretely the value of principled EU engagement for war crimes accountability, Human Rights Watch said. Serbia also arrested the remaining ICTY fugitive, Goran Hadzic, in June 2011. None of the ICTY’s 161 indictees remain at large.

“Mladic’s arrest after years on the lam shows what can be achieved when states use their diplomatic muscle to enforce international justice,” Singh said. “Countries around the world should show similar resolve in pushing for the arrest of suspects wanted by the International Criminal Court, including Bosco Ntaganda, the rebel-leader-turned-army-general in the Democratic Republic of Congo.”

The UN Security Council created the ICTY in 1993 in response to credible reports of atrocity crimes during the Bosnian war. The ICTY was the first international court created to address atrocities on European soil since the Nuremberg tribunal at the end of World War II.

Mladic’s long-awaited trial comes as the ICTY is in the process of completing its work, as mandated by the UN Security Council. Estimates as of December 2011 suggest that the trial of Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb wartime political leader accused of being Mladic’s co-architect in the Srebrenica genocide, is expected to be completed in 2014. No dates have yet been given for the expected completion of the Mladic and Hadzic trials.

It will be especially important for the tribunal to keep victims and affected communities in Bosnia informed of developments in the courtroom, Human Rights Watch said. Because Mladic is one of the most high-profile defendants on trial for crimes during the Bosnian war, the tribunal will need financial support by countries for effective outreach to bridge the gap between The Hague and victims in Bosnia.

In addition to the charges stemming from the Srebrenica killings, Mladic faces nine charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity for abuses committed by Bosnian Serb forces during the conflict. Mladic and Karadzic were indicted in 1995. Karadzic eluded capture until July 2008. Mladic’s case was officially severed from Karadzic’s in October 2009. Karadzic’s trial before the Yugoslav tribunal began the same month and is ongoing, with the defense set to begin presenting its case in October 2012.

Prosecutors asked the court to separate Mladic’s indictment into two parts – one for events in Srebrenica, which would proceed first, and one for all other crimes – in part to address unforeseen circumstances should his health deteriorate. The judges rejected the request, saying that such concerns were not supported by medical or other documentation. Prosecutors have since trimmed Mladic’s 11-count indictment which covered 196 separate crime scenes to 106.

The first genocide conviction by the tribunal was in August 2001 against General Radislav Krstic, who was sentenced to 46 years in prison. Krstic was second in command to Mladic at Srebrenica. In April 2004, the ICTY Appeals Chamber reduced Krstic’s sentence to 35 years, but confirmed that the Srebrenica killings were genocide. On June 10, 2010, the ICTY also convicted Vujadin Popovic, Chief of Security in the Drina Corps, a wartime Bosnian Serb army unit, and Ljubisa Beara, chief of security of the Bosnian Serb Army’s main staff, on several accounts including genocide, extermination, murder, and persecution and sentenced them both to life in prison.

Rejecting Bosnia’s moves toward independence as Yugoslavia broke apart, from April 1992 onwards Bosnian Serbs began seizing control of large areas in Bosnia and Herzegovina, “ethnically cleansing” non-Serbs and subjecting them to systematic violence and persecution. Non-Serbs also committed violations of international humanitarian law. The conflict, which lasted from 1992 to 1995, was characterized by grave violations of human rights such as mass killings, rapes, widespread destruction, and displacement of populations. Following their indictment in 1995, Mladic and Karadzic went into hiding. Both men were eventually arrested in Serbia.

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