By Julian Borger in The Hague/ Guardian –
The Hague war crimes tribunal, already under fire for its slow pace in dealing with Balkan war crimes cases, was thrown into confusion on Thursday by the revelation that lawyers prosecuting the Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic had failed to turn over hundreds of thousands of pages of evidence to the defence.
The Dutch judge, Alphons Orie, said the mistake would lead to a delay in the trial, which lawyers were already predicting would last four years or more.
“The chamber is still in the process of gathering information of the scope and full impact of this error,” Orie said.
He added that, after meeting defence and prosecution lawyers, he would announce a new start date for the prosecution’s presentation of evidence and witnesses “as soon as possible”. This phase had been due to start at the end of May.
The fiasco drew outrage from Bosnian survivors and bereaved families who had made the trip to The Hague to see Mladic face trial.
“We don’t agree with this. We ask to speed up the trial and to speed up the judgment, because it is important for the past, for Bosnia and the whole region, and it’s important for the future,” said Hatidza Mehmedovic, whose husband and two sons, one still a teenager, were among over 7,000 men and boys massacred by Mladic’s forces in Srebrenica.
“Nothing more can happen to me, but I don’t want any other mother anywhere to be in my shoes and go looking for the bones of their children, and be happy if they find only small bones,” Mehmedovic said. “With my elder son, they have only found two bones. With my younger they have almost a full skeleton. This has to be a fight for justice so that no mother has to look for their children in mass graves.”
Mladic claims he was in Belgrade holding meetings and attending a wedding when the Srebrenica massacre took place, but the prosecution demonstrated that he was in Srebrenica and the surrounding towns on the critical days from 11-14 July when the Muslim enclave fell to his forces and when men and teenage boys were rounded up and separated from women and children prior to their execution.
“This was not an army out of control or under the control of someone else. Only an army strictly under control from the top could have murdered over 7,000 people in four days,” Peter McCloskey, one of the trial prosecutors, said. “The VRS [the Republika Srpska army] carried out orders with incredible discipline, organisation and military efficiency … It was a truly amazing feat of utter brutality.”
For much of Thursday’s proceedings, Mladic listened impassively to the evidence presented against him. He became animated only once, clapping and giving a thumbs-up sign when a video was shown of him interrogating and shouting at the Dutch UN commander, Thom Karremans, whose troops were supposed to protect the enclave but were hopelessly outnumbered.
Mladic repeatedly asked Karremans if his soldiers had fired on Bosnian Serb troops who had overrun Srebrenica, and demanded to know if Karremans had called in Nato air strikes. Karremans insisted UN soldiers had been ordered to shoot only in self-defence and air strikes were decided by the UN headquarters.
In fact, as McCloskey pointed out, the air strikes were too little, too late.
The tribunal was shown footage of Mladic walking through Srebrenica town on 11 July 1995, just after it had fallen.
In it he says: “We give this town to the Serb people as a gift … Finally the time has come has take our revenge on the Turks [referring to Muslims] in this region.”
The prosecution also showed footage of Mladic on the scene while men and boys were separated from their families. Film was shown of the operation to round up men and boys who had tried to escape through the woods and of piles of corpses outside a nearby warehouse. Other evidence included Mladic’s written order to provide several tonnes of diesel fuel to a Bosnian Serb officer in Zvornik whose job it was to excavate mass graves and rebury the remains of the victims in smaller graves in an effort to avoid detection.
It was unclear how the debacle at The Hague had come about. The prosecution declared in November that it had handed the documentation over and only realised last Friday that it had failed to do so. The defence says a million pages were involved. Prosecutors admit that more than 37,000 documents could be missing.
Mladic’s lawyers are demanding a delay of six months. Tribunal sources suggested the delay would be significantly less than that, particularly in light of previous criticism of the court for its glacial pace. The trial of the former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic lasted five years and only ended with his death from a heart attack in a cell in The Hague in March 2006.
After the morning session, Mehmedovic accused the international community of conniving in continuing “ethnic cleansing”. She pointed to a change in municipal law in Srebrenica this month, accepted by the international community, which meant that Muslim survivors of the massacre could not vote for the mayor. The municipality is now likely to come under Serb control in elections in October.
“What is even worse is that the whole world is seeing this and even now is not doing anything about it. The [ethnic cleansing] project is still alive. People are still suffering. Crimes are being rewarded,” Mehmedovic said. “Families of those who were killed cannot vote. With this law, they are legalising genocide. This is very dangerous for the region. This is what has to be stopped. “