Bungling over Mladic

The Tribunal’s “Unpleasant Surprise”

The trials in the International Criminal Tribunal of the former Yugoslavia have had a habit of misfiring in its most high profile cases.  Former Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic cheated the prosecutors with his well timed death after a four year period of legal constipation and resilience, and the former General Ratko Mladic now finds his own trial suspended indefinitely after his brief debut at the Hague tribunal.  The fact that the accused has suffered three brain strokes and received treatment for cancer is not something that augurs well for those operating the creaky wheels of justice.

The prosecutors of the UN’s International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia had not done their homework, though their argument here is that it was a “clerical error”.  While it is not clear at this stage, it seems that between 2 million to 8 million pages of case files and witness statements were not disclosed to the defence team.  These altogether amount to 40 thousand documents relevant to the first 24 witnesses that would have been called between the end of this month and July (Telegraph, May 17).

How that disclosure did not take place is itself a reflection about what legal proceedings have become – a matter of downloading, uploading and retrieving documents from a database.  It so happened that those documents were never ‘uploaded’.  “We sincerely apologise for the inconvenience”, wrote the prosecutors to Mladic’s lawyer.

What this seemingly bungling prosecution hopes to show is that former Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic issued instructions to Mladic to “create an unbearable situation of total insecurity with no hope of further survival or life for the inhabitants of Srebrenica”.  Mladic himself, on hearing  of Karadzic’s document ‘Six Strategic Goals of Serbian People in Bosnia and Herzegovina’ presented on May 12, 1992, made no secret of the awe and bloody terror that was being proposed.  “Do you think you just move people like that, as if they were a set of keys?  What you are asking me to do, gentlemen, is called genocide”.

The statement has not been taken to be a mitigating one.  Journalist Refik Hodzic saw it less an appeal to the kinder side of humanity than a means “to ensure everyone was on the same page” (Al Jazeera, May 17). Commissioned to undertake the task, Mladic did proclaim after the fall of the not so protected enclave of Srebrenica that, “The time has finally come for revenge against Turks [Bosnian Muslims] who live in the area.”

Even with this apparent gold mine of documentary evidence, the prosecutors fudged it, showing how history can be made by seemingly small errors.  Judge Alphons Orie could only describe this failing as an “unpleasant surprise” while Mladic’s defence lawyer was crowing when describing the oversight as “unprecedented in the history of the tribunal”.

Till that surprise, the prosecutors had been setting the scene – the role Mladic is said to have played behind the killing of 8000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica.  He was portrayed as casual before massacre, a brute who proved happy to attend a wedding even as his Vojska Republike Srpske forces perpetrated their deeds.  “The VRS”, advanced UN prosecutor Peter McCloskey, “was a professional army which carried out orders with incredible discipline, organisation and military efficiency.  Capturing, transporting, murdering and burying over 7000 men and boys, at first in total secrecy from the outside world, was a truly amazing feat of utter brutality.”

The trial has already been pencilled in for two years, though court officialdom tends to be rather lax in matters of case management.  Such laxity can be fatal in the lessons of history, showing how court rooms are often inadequate venues of moral instruction.  They do, in some cases, become the forums for revisionist martyrs.  It certainly will have no constructive effect on individuals such as the president of Republika Srpska Milorad Dodik, who is on record as claiming that Sarajevo was never besieged.  To suggest otherwise, Dodik claims, is itself an act forecasting the cleansing of Serbs from the city.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com. Read other articles by Binoy.