In the dock: justice catches up with Butcher of Bosnia Ratko Mladic

Mladic makes throat-slitting gesture at relatives of ethnic cleansing victims in court

Twenty years after he became commander of the Bosnian Serb Army for the 1992-95 war, Ratko Mladic sat in the dock of the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague yesterday charged with committing crimes against humanity in Bosnia.

One of the most important trials in the court's 19-year history opened with prosecutors accusing General Mladic of "ethnically cleansing much of Bosnia", and vowing to show Mladic's hand in crimes that took the lives of 100,000 non-Serbs.

The 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity facing Mladic include the massacre of more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica – the worst of its kind in Europe since the Second World War – and the loss of 10,000 lives in the three-and-a-half-year siege of Sarajevo.

He has called the accusations "monstrous" and the court has entered a not guilty plea on his behalf.

"Four days ago marked two decades since Ratko Mladic became the commander of the army of Republika Srpska – the VRS," prosecutor Dermot Groome said. "On that day, Mladic began his full participation in a criminal endeavour that was already in progress. On that day, he assumed the mantle of realising through military might the criminal goals of ethnically cleansing much of Bosnia. On that day he commenced his direct involvement in serious international crimes."

Dressed in a dark grey suit, his hair neatly cut, Mladic, 70, seemed unmoved by Mr Groome's assertions. Earlier, he has seemed almost jovial, clapping his hands and giving a thumbs-up to the judges as they walked in. He looked in better health than he did almost a year ago, when he was arrested in a small village near Belgrade after spending 15 years on the run.

The prosecution showed an audio-visual presentation that included 20-year-old pre-war and wartime ethnic maps, copies of orders, and other documents detailing the Bosnian Serb leadership's "strategic goals" concerning the elimination of Bosnian Muslims from Bosnian Serb areas.

The wartime diaries kept by Mladic, discovered in Belgrade a few years ago, were also presented to the court to show that Mladic was aware of atrocities committed by the VRS, including the systematic rape of Muslim women.

During the highly charged proceedings, Mladic communicated with the audience in the public gallery which was mostly made up of relatives of Srebrenica victims. In response to their often loud protests against him, Mladic drew his finger across his neck in a throat-slitting gesture.

Presiding Judge Alphons Orie ordered Mladic to concentrate on the process, saying he would not tolerate "inappropriate interaction".

The target of Mladic's gesture was Munira Subasic, 65, who heads the Mothers of Srebrenica victims association. She called Mladic "the biggest butcher of the Balkans and the world" and said she had attended the trial to "look him into his eyes and ask him if he repents".

For Ramiza Gurdic, who lost two sons and her husband in the massacre, the trial "means nothing". "I hope he does not die... I'd like to see his family come over here and see Mothers of Srebrenica, those who lost sons, husbands and fathers," said Ms Gurdic, who watched the trial on television in the northern Bosnian town of Tuzla.

Her friend Fatima Mujic, who lost three sons, her husband and two brothers in Srebrenica, said she hopes "the truth about crimes will finally be established". "I hope the trial brings justice, but it will certainly not ease our pain."

Fikret Grabovica, who heads the association of parents of children killed in the siege of Sarajevo, said: "It's important he be sentenced, so that everyone knows what really happened here... I hope that many of those who have illusions and believe that Mladic is a Serb hero will change their minds and that the trial will demonstrate he was just a criminal and a coward."

Mr Groome said Mladic had been hand-picked for the crimes he committed by Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic, and was backed by former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. Karadzic was arrested in 2008 and is being held in the same jail as Mladic as his trial continues. Milosevic died during the trial against him in 2006.