Mladic closing arguments: Saving the best for last?

22 December 2016 by Stephanie van den Berg

The closing arguments in the case against former Bosnian Serb military commander General Ratko Mladic finished up last week. The 1992-95 war in Bosnia ended over twenty years ago and Mladic's is the last trial for the tribunal which has seen interest in its trials waning, is this case too little, too late or did the tribunal save the best for last?

Justice Tribune spoke to Iva Vukusic about the significance of the case and the closing arguments of the parties. Vukusic is former journalist who also worked in the prosecutions office of the Bosnian state court's war crimes chambers and is now a PhD candidate at Utrecht University where she focuses on paramilitarism during the 1990s wars in the former Yugoslavia.

Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic together in an undated image (Photo: Flickr/ICTY)
Image caption: 
Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic together in an undated image (Photo: Flickr/ICTY)

The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) is closing next year and this is the last major trial. How important is this case for the legacy of the ICTY?

Iva Vukusic (IV) : The trial against Mladic is one of the cases that will define the last stage of the tribunal. Probably (Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan) Karadzic and Mladic will be considered as some of the most important trials in the entire history of the tribunal.

What also makes it remarkable is that it is a really high official, someone who was on the run for a long time, so there was a lot of attention and expectation because he is considered to be one of the most responsible persons for the violence in Bosnia.

The closing arguments really gave me a sense of something big ending and I really hope that Mladic stays healthy and lives to see the end of the proceedings (with the verdict expected in November next year).

The biggest value of this trial and the tribunal I think is in the archives. Trials like the Mladic case really help with bringing evidence and historical sources out in the open for researchers but also for the general public. In society we don't necessarily all have to agree about the importance of specific individuals and what they have done but we have to agree to respect facts in our discussions and to base them on evidence. We have to start from somewhere firm (in discussions about the war) and I think that these trials give us that opportunity.

For such a high profile trial, it been quite low key, not a lot of media attention or court room drama during the case. Why is that?

IV: It has been a long while since the war and I think that impacts how much attention a case generates. There is also the element that the trials have been normalised to a certain extent. The public have become accustomed to the trials going on and that might not be a bad thing.

The Mladic case was quite quiet in the sense that there was not a lot of drama generated on a daily basis. That's good, for a court procedure it's not bad if it is orderly and without a lot of drama.

Most of the large incidents and the important pieces of evidence have been presented before. 

Had Mladic and Karadzic been arrested at the time when they were first indicted (in 1995) I really wonder what kind of a trial that would have been. A lot of the evidence in their cases came through during the proceedings and cases that preceded them. Now many of the bodies have been exhumed and identified, many of the documents were seized. There were plea agreements and people who testified in trials time and time again, so the prosecution had enough time to test their evidence and to make sure that their case theory holds.

That is actually one of the benefits of the fact that this important trial was done so late in the life of the tribunal because the office of the prosecutor by that time had managed to gather solid evidence, tested in court in one case after another and was able to present what I believe is a consistent, convincing case.

The defence spent a lot of time going into events that led up to the war trying to show Mladic as a man who was just defending his people, the Serbs against outside threats. Will that help their case?

IV: During closing arguments there was a discussion in particular about the threats Serb people in Bosnia faced - which I'm not disputing - but the problem here is that some of the story was about who was to blame for the war and that is not particularly useful. There was also this attempt to paint the Bosnian Muslim leadership (…) as wanting this rigid fundamentalist Islamic state in the heart of Europe. They even compared it to modern-day ISIS. But even if that were true, that would not justify the detentions in small municipalities, murder, and expulsion of civilian population.

Secondly the Mladic defence said that he was not actually the man in charge. The (defence) story was that Mladic was a well-meaning officer and that whatever happened was not because of his orders, that he did everything he could to protect all Bosnians. For example (they argued that) in Srebrenica whatever crimes were committed there were either revenge or carried out by renegade officers and paramilitaries and in no way related to the Bosnian Serb army.

This is a really hard argument to accept, given what we have seen. From many, many pieces of evidence and testimony from Mladic's own colleagues and fellow officers we can conclude that is absolutely not the case. If anyone was running the Bosnian Serb army, it was Ratko Mladic.

The defence have also tried to argue that Mladic is not getting a fair trial because he was already named as a participant in a joint criminal enterprise to oust non-Serbs from large parts of Bosnia in several other judgements, most recently in the Karadzic decision [IJT-195]. What do you say to that argument?

IV: The fact that he was mentioned in so many trials before is also due to the fact that he was an individual holding a very important position for a number of years, so him being mentioned is to a certain extent unavoidable given the number of trials we have witnessed.

The Mladic defence had plenty of time to present their evidence, bring the documents and question their witnesses.. I think the argument that it was an unfair trial cannot be made. In cases that are this long and complicated I'm sure both parties are at some point or another feeling frustrated because they could not present one piece of evidence or one witness. Overall, given the length of the proceeding and just how much evidence was presented, I think it is a very difficult case to make that Mladic did not have an opportunity to defend himself the way you would want in professional, impartial proceedings.

During closing arguments the prosecution sought a life sentence for Mladic and his defence demanded acquittal. A verdict is expected late next year.

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