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Mejra Dzogaz cries near the graves of her family members at the Memorial Center in Potocari, Bosnia and Herzegovina, 6 km north-west of Srebrenica, on April 7, 2014. Dzogaz lost her three sons, husband and father in the Srebrenica massacre. © 2014 Reuters

(Brussels) – The conviction of Ratko Mladic, once known as the “Butcher of Bosnia,” for genocide and other crimes on November 22, 2017, shows that justice catches up with those responsible for horrific atrocities, Human Rights Watch said today.

The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) found Mladic guilty of 10 out of 11 counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide, and sentenced him to life in prison. Mladic was commander of the Bosnian Serb Army Main Staff from roughly 1992 until 1996.

A woman reacts as she watches a television broadcast of the court proceedings of former Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic in the Memorial centre Potocari near Srebrenica. © 2017 Reuters

“More than two decades after his indictment, Ratko Mladic is finally facing the consequences of his gruesome crimes,” said Param-Preet Singh, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch. “The Mladic verdict should send a message to those in power around the world who are committing brutal atrocities, whether in Burma, North Korea, or Syria, that justice can find those who seem untouchable.”

The tribunal first indicted Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, the former president of the Republic of Srpska, the self-proclaimed Serb republic during the war, in July 1995 for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes in several municipalities across Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In November 1995, the ICTY charged Mladic and Karadzic in a separate indictment with genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes based on the Bosnian Serb army’s mass execution of at least 7,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys after the fall of the town of Srebrenica. The ICTY and the International Court of Justice have concluded that the Srebrenica massacre constitutes genocide.

Ratko Mladic reacts in court at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in the Hague. © 2017 Reuters

Both men went into hiding after their indictment. In May 2011, Serbian authorities arrested Mladic, having already arrested Karadzic in Belgrade in July 2008. On March 24, 2016, the ICTY sentenced Karadzic to 40 years in prison for his role in the Srebrenica genocide and other grave crimes committed in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Mladic’s trial began on May 16, 2012, and lasted more than 500 days, in part because of ongoing concerns for Mladic’s health, which meant that hearings were half an hour shorter than for other trials. Closing arguments were in December 2016. Earlier in 2017, the judges rejected a request from Mladic’s defense team that he be allowed travel to Russia to undergo medical treatment, noting consistent evidence of a “consolidated stable state of health,” despite some risks, since his surrender. Efforts by Mladic’s defense team to delay the delivery of the verdict because of his health were also rejected. After a brief recess in today’s hearing, Mladic could be seen shouting in the courtroom and had to be removed.

The European Union played an important role in bringing Mladic to justice by conditioning closer ties with Serbia on its full cooperation with the ICTY, including the arrest and surrender of the fugitives indicted by the tribunal. Of the 161 suspects the ICTY indicted, none remain at large.

“The ICTY’s convictions of Mladic and Karadzic, architects of the worst crime on European soil since the second world war, show that international justice can deliver justice to victims if countries use their political and financial muscle to support it,” Singh said.

The Mladic trial is the tribunal’s last. Following the delivery of an appeals judgment in another case, the tribunal will close its doors at the end of 2017. The United Nations Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals, which has a branch in The Hague, will handle any remaining proceedings.

Despite the ICTY’s success, the struggle to address thousands of cases involving grave abuses committed during the Balkans conflicts continues, as political and capacity issues impede national efforts toward justice. National authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina will try most of these cases, while some may be heard in courts in Serbia and Croatia. A new court established under Kosovo law but with international prosecutors and judges and based in The Hague will try serious crimes committed during and just after the 1998-1999 war there.

ICTY prosecutor Serge Brammertz recently raised concerns about the deterioration of regional judicial cooperation, and an increasingly polarized political environment in the region, “where conflict and atrocities can gain a logic of their own.” Such an environment underscores the need for meaningful region-wide truth and reconciliation efforts alongside justice in domestic courts.

“The need to hold those responsible for brutal crimes during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina does not end with Mladic’s conviction,” Singh said. “National authorities should redouble efforts to bring the hundreds of remaining suspects to justice, and ensure that the truth of what happened to the victims is not forgotten.”

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