Serb general goes on trial for the massacre of 7,000 in Srebrenica


It is July 1995, the height of the bloody Bosnian war, the start of its bloodiest massacre. The Bosnian Serb Gen Ratko Mladic is filmed by his own propaganda unit as he strides arrogantly into the small town of Srebrenica, a UN-declared "safe haven".

"Just before a great Serb holy day, we give this town to the Serb nation," he declaims to the camera and the troops around him. "Remembering the uprising against the Turks, the time has come to take revenge on the Muslims."

Beside him struts the figure of Gen Radislav Krstic, the deputy commander of the Drina Corps, who today answers before the international community for what would happen in the subsequent hours and days.

His trial on charges of responsibility for the Srebrenica genocide of up to 7,000 Muslims opens here in the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia. And among the evidence shown to the court will be that very film, part of a harrowing BBC documentary, Cry From The Grave, by Leslie Woodhead, shown last November.

The trial marks another landmark in attempts to create a system to bring to account internationally the perpetrators of torture and war crimes.

These are not easy days for generals with blood on their hands. Ten days ago the same court handed down a 45-year sentence to Croat Gen Tihomir Blaskic on 20 similar counts, the eighth judgment by the court created by the UN in 1993.

The prosecution spokesman, Mr Paul Risley, argues the verdict marked a new, powerful phase for the tribunal. "We will no longer be forced to concentrate on the small fish who carried out the crimes. We can focus on the most senior individuals who orchestrated the crimes, commanded units or attempted to cover the crimes committed," he said.

Only a few months ago the British courts ruled that Gen Augusto Pinochet could face trial internationally for his domestic abuse of human rights. Although he was sent back to Chile on health grounds, the decision remains a strong warning to dictators.

In separate trials in Arusha in Tanzania, another UN court has been handing down sentences to some of those responsible for Rwanda's genocide. In 1998 the former prime minister, Jean Kambanda, pleaded guilty to genocide and was sentenced to life imprisonment.

And, crucially, last July saw the historic adoption in Rome of the statute of the International Criminal Court by some 120 states. Only seven were opposed, including the US, Israel, China and India.

When finally established it will have jurisdiction over genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Today's trial is also of huge significance because it is the first to shine the spotlight on the tragedy of Srebrenica, where Bosnian Serb forces brushed past 110 lightly-armed and unresisting Dutch troops to commit what was probably the biggest massacre of civilians in post-war Europe.

The guilty memory of its troops' passivity means the trial will be followed particularly closely in the Netherlands.

As details of both the massacre and UN inaction emerged, the shock waves had a profound effect on the resolve of the international community to meet Serb force with force, marking the opening of the last chapter of the war.

In an important, deeply self-critical report last November the UN secretary-general, Mr Kofi Annan, then head of the UN peacekeeping operation, acknowledged the systemic failures and deliberate evasions that contributed to its inability to defend the town. He appealed for a fundamental reappraisal of the UN's doctrine of neutrality between foes who clearly do not have a moral equivalence.

Gen Krstic (52) is by far the most senior Bosnian Serb officer yet to face trial, although related indictments remain open against both Gen Mladic and his erstwhile political boss, Dr Radovan Karadzic. Gen Krstic could provide invaluable evidence of their role.

His indictment by the tribunal was kept secret until he was snatched by US troops in northern Bosnia in December 1998. Appearing in the Hague court a few days later for a remand hearing, as each of six charges was put to him, he said: "I plead not guilty."

According to the indictment, forces under Gen Krstic and Gen Mladic "either expelled or killed" almost every Bosnian Muslim in the enclave, using automatic weapons, hand grenades and other weaponry.

The charges he faces are of "genocide, crimes against humanity and violations of the laws or customs of war", and the indictment lists 11 sites of mass execution around the town where troops under his control systematically executed unarmed prisoners, who had been offered safe conduct by Serb officers.

The indictment also names five sites where his troops, as word got out internationally, reburied bodies to conceal evidence of the massacre.

Since the Hague court's inception, 93 individuals have been publicly indicted. Seven of those accused have died, and charges were dropped against 18 others. The full proceedings against three accused have been completed. Another 36 accused are currently in proceedings before the tribunal and 30 publicly-indicted accused remain at large.