The last major player from the Bosnian conflict took his seat in the Hague, making a throat-slitting motion to Munira Subasic, one of many spectators who have waited almost two decades for justice.
On the first day of a trial that could last three years, Ratko Mladic, the “Butcher of Belgrade”, seemed to enjoy coming face-to-face with family members of some 8,000 Muslims he is accused of murdering in Srebrenica in 1995. Ms Subasic, separated by glass from Mr Mladic, lost 22 relatives, including her three-year-old son, who was shot in the head for crying too loudly. His body has never been found.
Mr Mladic, 70, his hair thinning and donning glasses, gave a thumbs-up sign to his family and supporters as proceedings got underway. He was arrested in Serbia in 2011 after 15 years on the run and faces 11 charges, including genocide. But for Ms Subasic and other relatives of his victims, theirs could be a lengthy wait for justice.
“The public is now accustomed to exceedingly lengthy war crimes trials that often take longer to conclude than the conflicts,” Roger Sahota, a solicitor advocate involved in the prosecution of Liberia’s Charles Taylor, told Channel 4 News. “Mladic’s trial is expected to last at least three years.” (Read Roger Sahota’s full comments: Why do war crime trials drag on longer than the war? )
Nonetheless, human rights advocates believe it has been worth the exhausting delays in bringing Mr Mladic to court.
“His trial should lay to rest the notion that those accused of atrocity crimes can run out the clock on justice,” said Param-Preet Singh, a senior lawyer at Human Rights Watch.
Hague prosecutor Dermot Groome began laying out arguments shortly after 9am, a task expected to last two days. He began by describing victims as “civilians who were targeted for no other reason other than they were of an ethnicity other than Serb”.
“In some locations, this attack rose to the level of genocide,” Mr Groome said. “The world watched in disbelief.”
Mr Mladic has already described his position in outbursts during the initial proceedings in 2011, calling his actions “acts of war” in defence of the state. He refused to enter a plea to the 11 charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
“I am defending my country and people, not Ratko Mladic,” he said, railing against the charges, the court and the time frame given to prepare his defence.
An urgent motion on Tuesday complaining of the alleged bias of the Dutch judge was dismissed by the president of the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal. His lawyers accused Judge Alphons Orie of bias in charges linked to the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, involving Dutch UN peacekeepers accused of not acting to prevent the slaying by Serb forces of thousands of Muslim men.
Mr Mladic’s lawyers were still hoping late on Tuesday to get a six-month delay, claiming they had not had time to prepare their defence because prosecutors did not properly disclose all evidence. The plea was rejected.
Mr Mladic faces two counts of genocide that allege he orchestrated atrocities by Serb fighters throughout the 1992-95 Bosnian War. He faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment if convicted. He is being tried as an individual, charged for joint criminal enterprises and individual ones.
One of the three judges presiding over the case, German Christoph Flugge, was removed from judges enlisted to preside over the case of former Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic after comments to a magazine about the distinction between genocide and mass killing.
“Why do we have to draw this distinction in the first place? Does it make it more or less unjust when a group of people is killed, not for national, ethnic, racist or religious reasons, as regulated in our statute, but merely because these people all happened to be in a certain location?” he said.
Controversially, he has now been appointed to the Mladic case and will hear the testimony of the former commander of the Bosnian Serb army and more than 150 witnesses who will testify in proceedings certain to provoke memories and tears.