Ratko Mladic has gone on trial in The Hague accused of carrying out atrocities in Bosnia, twenty years after the 1992-95 war in which more than 100,000 people died.
The 70-year-old former Serb military commander appeared before the United Nations' Yugoslav war crimes tribunal on 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including genocide.
Speaking before the trial, the court’s chief prosecutor Serge Brammertz said: "I don't have to tell you how important it is that finally this trial can start 17 years after the first indictment was issued."
After the end of the war, Mladic went into hiding becoming one of the world’s most famous fugitives. He was finally arrested by Serb forces in Belgrade last May after the election of Boris Tadic, who purged the nation's security forces of nationalists.
Similar to Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, who is currently half way through his own war crimes trial, Mladic is accused of carrying out ethnic cleansing, and overseeing Europe’s worst massacre since the end for the Second World War, including the killing more than 7,000 Muslims at Srebrenica in 1995.
Mladic, who has called the charges “monstrous”, is also accused of a 44-month siege of Sarajevo in which thousands died due to shelling and sniper fire. The General has refused to enter a plea on the charges, so the court has entered a plea of “not guilty” on his behalf.
The former Yugoslav president, Slobodan Milosevic, a key player in the Balkan Wars, died in prison in 2006 before a verdict was reached on his own culpability for the genocide. Survivors of the war are concerned a similar fate may befall Mladic, who is in ill health and reportedly suffered a recent stroke.
Mladic remains unrepentant, and entered the courtroom on Wednesday in a grey suit, clapping his hands and waving to the public gallery. If found guilty, he faces life imprisonment.
The trial is expected to last more than 200 hours and will hear from around 400 witnesses, many through written testimony.
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At a pre-trial hearing last year, Mladic said: "The whole world knows who I am... I am General Ratko Mladic. I defended my people, my country... now I am defending myself."
Mladic still enjoys support in Serbia, with many seeing him as a hero of Serb nationalism.
Mile Mladic, the uncle of the accused, recently said: "A big fuss is created that he is a war criminal; that he is on trial. He has never been, he will never be a war criminal... I don't allow anyone to say that he is a war criminal. He was a military leader, he led his troops, he was a commander; that suited him, and he was only defending his people."
Ahead of the trial, Bruno Lukic, Mladic's defence lawyer said his client was "feeling better". He added: "For a man in the state he is – he's a man in generally bad shape – he's feeling pretty good."
Relatives of the Bosnian war dead took place outside the tribunal
The prosecution is expected to build a case around Mladic’s personal responsibility for Srebrenica and the siege of Sarajevo. Included in the evidence will be video archives showing the military commander organising troops near to the sites of the massacres, including footage of Mladic telling Muslim young men: "Surrender your weapons and I will guarantee you life. You can survive or you can disappear."
The commander's own war-time diaries are expected to be submitted as evidence.
After the end of the war, a mass grave of 7,000 bodies was found outside Srebrenica.
Opening the proceedings, Dermot Groome, the prosecuting counsel, spoke of a 14-year-old boy who's family members were murdered in 1992. Similar killings were carried out throughout the conflict, said Groome, adding: "By the time Mladic and his troops murdered thousands in Srebrenica... they were well-rehearsed in the craft of murder."
Outside the court, the members of the Mothers of Srebrenica group held a vigil.