Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Mladic Refuses to Enter Plea
Ratko Mladic at his initial hearing in the ICTY courtroom on June 3, 2011. (Photo: ICTY)
In his first appearance at the Hague tribunal, Ratko Mladic called the charges against him “obnoxious” and would not enter a plea.
After presiding Judge Alphons Orie finished reading out a summary of the indictment for the court, the accused man said, "I would like to get more time to read these obnoxious charges."
He indicated that he had not yet reviewed the indictment, a copy of which was provided to him upon his arrival in The Hague.
“I need more than a month for these monstrous words,” he said.
The lawyer currently representing him, Aleksandar Aleksic, told Judge Orie that he had gone over the 37 page document with his client, and that “not for a single moment” did he have the impression Mladic failed to understand the charges against him.
According to tribunal rules, a defendant has 30 days after his or her initial appearance to enter a plea.
Another hearing has already been set for July 4, and if Mladic is still resistant, the judge will enter a plea of not guilty on his behalf.
Since his arrest in the Serbian village of Lazarevo on May 26, rumours have circulated about the state of Mladic’s health, and many wondered whether he would be strong enough to appear in court at all. A photo released after his arrest depicted an elderly man who bore little resemblance to the robust military commander who featured so prominently in wartime video footage.
At the June 3 hearing, Mladic, 69, wore a grey suit and tie, along with a baseball cap that he removed after the judges entered.
In an unusual gesture, he gave a salute to those in the public gallery and courtroom.
When asked to state his date of birth, his answer he gave was different than the date possessed by the bench. This caused momentary confusion, and Mladic initially had difficulty operating his microphone.
He seemed to become more alert as the hearing progressed, and on at least a few occasions, he looked into the packed public gallery and smiled.
Survivors of the war who were seated in his line of vision often became emotional during the hearing. One woman who lost family members in the Srebrenica massacre put her head in her hands and wept as Judge Orie described the way more than 8,000 Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) men and boys were murdered in the days after the enclave fell in July 1995.
Mladic, the commander of the Bosnian Serb army from 1992 to 1996, is alleged to have been responsible for some of the worst crimes of the Bosnian war, including Srebrenica – considered the worst single atrocity committed on European soil since the Second World War – and the 44-month shelling and sniping campaign against Sarajevo, which killed some 12,000 civilians.
He is also charged with crimes of genocide, persecution, extermination, murder and forcible transfer in 23 municipalities across Bosnia.
The indictment, an amended version of which was confirmed by judges last week, is now almost identical to that against Mladic’s former superior, wartime Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic, who is currently standing trial at the tribunal.
Both Mladic and Karadzic are alleged to have been part of a joint criminal enterprise whose purpose was to remove Bosnian Muslims and Croats from Serb-claimed territory in Bosnia-Hercegovina.
Karadzic too was a fugitive for many years before his arrest in 2008. At the time, he was living in Belgrade under an assumed name and posing as an alternative healer.
Most of the discussion of Mladic’s health took place in private session, at his request.
In open session, Judge Orie asked whether the accused wanted to raise any issues regarding his arrest and detention.
Mladic began, “Since there are journalists here from around the world, those who found me and treated me….” Here the judge interjected, “Whether journalists are here or not are irrelevant.”
“I do not fear any journalist, or any nation or ethnicity,” Mladic continued. “I defended my people and country, not Ratko Mladic. Now I am defending myself.”
He said his arrest in Serbia was carried out with “fairness and dignity”, but that he did not like the “balaclavas” – meaning masked police officers – who escorted him during his transfer to The Hague.
“I want to live so that I am a free man,” Mladic said.
While at one point in the proceedings he said he was “gravely ill”, he later insisted that he be allowed to walk by himself, without any help.
“I don’t want to be helped to move like a blind man,” he told Judge Orie. “I am General Mladic, and the whole world knows who I am.”
Rachel Irwin is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.
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