Judge postpones evidence in Ratko Mladic war crimes trial after Srebrenica massacre is recounted


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The Independent Online

An apparent clerical error prompted judges to postpone the long-awaited war crimes trial of former Bosnian Serb military leader Ratko Mladic today, possibly for months.

The delay cast a shadow over one of the court's biggest cases - and over the reputation of the court itself, whose most prominent trials have proceeded at a snail's pace.

It also highlighted problems faced by international tribunals in prosecuting sweeping indictments covering allegations of atrocities spanning years in countries far from the courts where defendants face justice.

"It is fraught with delay because of the volume of documentation and scope of alleged crimes," said Richard Dicker, the director of Human Rights Watch's international justice programme.

Presiding judge Alphons Orie said he was delaying the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal case due to "significant disclosure errors" by prosecutors, who are obliged to share all evidence with Mladic's lawyers.

Mr Orie said judges will analyse the "scope and full impact" of the error and aim to establish a new starting date "as soon as possible." The presentation of evidence was supposed to begin later this month.

Prosecutors had already acknowledged the errors and did not object to the delay. Mladic's lawyer has asked for a six-month delay to study the materials.

Mladic is accused of commanding Bosnian Serb troops who waged a campaign of murder and persecution to drive Muslims and Croats out of territory they considered part of Serbia during Bosnia's 1992-95 war.

His troops rained shells and snipers' bullets down on civilians in the 44-month siege of the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo. They also executed thousands of Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica, the site of Europe's worst massacre since the Second World War.

He has refused to enter pleas to the charges but denies wrongdoing. If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

Court spokeswoman Nerma Jelacic said much of the material that the defence did not get was about witnesses prosecutors had intended to call to testify before the court's summer break. Prosecutors acknowledged that the error "could impact on the fairness of the trial to the accused," she said.

The tribunal published a letter from prosecutors to Mladic's lawyer that explained the missing documents were not uploaded onto an electronic database accessible to defence lawyers. "We sincerely apologise for the inconvenience," it read.

Hatidza Mehmedovic, whose husband and two sons were slain by Serb forces during the Srebrenica massacre, said she hoped the delay would not be too long.

"We are worried he won't live to see justice," Mrs Mehmedovic said in the tribunal's lobby as she prepared to make the long trek back to Srebrenica.

Her fears are not without reason. Mladic, now 70, suffered three strokes during his 15 years as a fugitive, his lawyer says.

In another case that suffered repeated delays, former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic died of a heart attack in 2006 before judges could deliver a verdict in his trial that dragged on for four years.

However, the delays in Milosevic's trial were largely caused by his ill health and his lengthy political grandstanding while acting as his own defence lawyer.

Suspects like Milosevic and his Bosnian Serb counterpart Radovan Karadzic - whose trial is at its half-way stage after starting in October 2009 - "seek to use the criminal process as a platform to expound their views and rewrite history in a way that is favourable to them," said Mr Dicker.

Earlier, prosecutors wrapped up their opening statement in Mladic's genocide trial by recounting in painstaking and chilling detail his forces' systematic slayings in Srebrenica in July 1995.

Mladic's army "carried out their murderous orders with ... dedication and military efficiency," prosecutor Peter McCloskey said.

Mladic showed no emotion as Mr McCloskey showed a fleeting video of what he said were the bodies executed Muslim men piled in front of a bullet-riddled wall.

Mr McCloskey outlined how Mladic's forces summoned buses and trucks from across Bosnia to transport women and girls out of the Srebrenica enclave. The Muslim men and boys were then driven to remote locations and gunned down by firing squads, their bodies ploughed into mass graves.

Mr McCloskey said the remains - sometimes no more than a couple of bones - of 5,977 victims have been exhumed so far. Estimates of the dead run to 8,000.

He also showed photographs of an exposed mass grave to underscore the point that the victims were not war casualties. One photo showed a skull, its teeth exposed and its eyes covered by a blindfold. Another showed a pair of hands bound with a strip of cloth behind a body's back.

In a video, a bullish Mladic was seen strutting through the deserted streets of Srebrenica and berating the commander of Dutch UN peacekeepers.

It was all too much for Mrs Mehmedovic, who wept in the court's lobby.

"I buried both of my sons and my husband. Now I live alone with memories of my children," she said. "I would never wish even Mladic to go through what I go through. Not Mladic or Karadzic. Let God judge them."