Belgrade, Serbia — After 16 years on the run, a frail and haggard Ratko Mladic was hauled before a judge Thursday — the first step in facing charges for international war crimes, including the slaughter of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica in 1995.
No longer the fearsome, bull-necked military commander, Mladic was arrested by intelligence agents in a raid before dawn at a relative’s house in a village in northern Serbia. The act was trumpeted by the government as a victory for a country worthy of European Union membership and Western embrace.
Mladic, 69, was one of the world’s most-wanted fugitives. He was the top commander of the Bosnian Serb army during Bosnia’s 1992-95 war, which killed more than 100,000 people and drove another 1.8 million from their homes. Thousands of Muslims and Croats were killed, tortured or driven out in a campaign to purge the region of non-Serbs.
He was accused by the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes for the massacre of Muslims by Bosnian Serb forces in eastern Bosnia and the relentless four-year siege of Sarajevo.
On Thursday evening, Mladic walked haltingly into a closed-door extradition hearing in Belgrade, where he asserted through his attorney that he will not answer to the authority of the U.N. tribunal.
The former military commander wore a navy blue jacket and a baseball hat — his gray hair sticking out of the sides — and carried what appeared to be a towel in his left hand. He could be heard on state TV saying “good day” to someone in the courtroom, and a guard told him, “Let’s go, general.”
Mladic’s lawyer, Milos Saljic, said the judge cut short the questioning because his client’s “poor physical state” left him unable to communicate.
“He is aware that he is under arrest, he knows where he is, and he said he does not recognize The Hague tribunal,” Saljic said, adding that Mladic needs medical care and “should not be moved in such a state.”
Belgrade B-92 radio said one of Mladic’s arms was paralyzed — probably the result of a stroke.
Deputy war crimes prosecutor Bruno Vekaric said that Mladic is taking a lot of medicine, but “responds very rationally to everything that is going on.”
Extradition proceedings could take a week or more before Mladic’s expected transfer to The Hague, where he faces life imprisonment. The U.N. court has no death penalty.
Judge Fouad Riad of the U.N. tribunal said there was evidence against Mladic of “unimaginable savagery.”
“Thousands of men executed and buried in mass graves, hundreds of men buried alive, men and women mutilated and slaughtered, children killed before their mothers’ eyes, a grandfather forced to eat the liver of his own grandson,” Riad said during Mladic’s 1995 indictment in absentia.
International law experts hope the arrest will send a message to figures like Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi that no leader charged with a war crime can expect to escape justice forever.