AMSTERDAM (AP) — Judging from previous cases, U.N. prosecutors have accumulated a massive amount of evidence that Ratko Mladic was the key figure in what the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal already has determined was the genocide of Muslims during the Bosnian war.
But even though the case against the former Bosnian Serb commander appears overwhelming, legal experts said Monday it must be put to the test against Mladic's defense team and cautioned against inferring guilt from the convictions of his subordinates.
The court must decide whether Mladic was ultimately responsible, directly or indirectly, for the murder of more that 8,000 Muslims at the U.N.-declared safe zone of Srebrenica in July 1995.
The slaughter was of such a scale that tribunal judges have dropped legal niceties in describing it. One verdict said the weeklong bloodbath involved crimes "committed with a level of brutality and depravity not previously seen in Yugoslavia ... and are among the darkest days in modern European history."
In Belgrade, Mladic's lawyer said Monday he would appeal the order to extradite the 69-year-old general to the tribunal in The Hague on the ground of ill health.
Mladic's son Darko said Sunday his father was not responsible for Srebrenica massacre and that he gave no orders for the killings. "Whatever was done behind his back, he has nothing to do with that," Darko Mladic told reporters in Belgrade, where the former general was taken following his capture last week.
Even if that is proven to be true, Mladic could be held to account for war crimes. Earlier cases have established a principle of "command responsibility," holding that commanders are liable if they failed to prevent or punish illegal actions of their men.
"You don't necessarily have to give direct orders," said Alison Smith, the legal Counsel for the Belgian-based group No Peace Without Justice.
Mladic's name is rife throughout the thousands of testimonies and documents that have gone through the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia since it was created in 1993 — even before the Balkan wars reached their climax.
Mladic and his political boss, Radovan Karadzic, repeatedly emerge as the two central figures in the conduct of the 1992-95 war in Bosnia, leading meetings at which military strategy was decided and giving the orders to carry out their goal of "cleansing" areas of non-Serbs.
Mladic and Karadzic were indicted for genocide and other war crimes after Srebrenica and both went into hiding. Karadzic was captured in 2008 and his trial is still in the early stages.
One clear link to Mladic came in the 2001 genocide conviction of one of his top commanders, Radoslav Krstic, who led the corps that held the Srebrenica area. It was the first time anyone was convicted of genocide in Europe — a crime that was defined only after the Holocaust in World War II. An appeals judgment three years later reduced the charge to complicity in genocide and set the sentence at 35 years imprisonment.
The appeals court cited Krstic's position that "the chain of command originated with Mladic," and the lower court's finding that "Mladic directed the operation."
The Krstic case was the first to rule that genocide — the intent to destroy an ethnic or religious group in whole or in part — had occurred in Srebrenica. That ruling, reaffirmed in other tribunal cases, also was upheld by the U.N.'s highest judicial body, the International Court of Justice.
Last year, two other high-ranking security officers, Vujadin Popovic and Ljubisa Beara, were convicted of genocide at Srebrenica and received the maximum punishment of life imprisonment, while a third was convicted of complicity in genocide. Their appeals are pending.
All together, 12 senior officers have been convicted of war crimes or crimes against humanity for Srebrenica. Besides the Karadzic case, another four trials of military men related to the massacre have yet to be completed.
"The evidence strongly suggests that the criminal activity was being directed by some members of (Bosnian Serb army) Main Staff under the direction of Gen. Mladic," said Krstic's appeal.
The difficult task for prosecutors, as in all genocide cases, is to prove his prior intention to eliminate the Muslims from the enclave by any means.
"Somebody had to have that intent. That's why the Karadzic trial is so interesting," said Geraldine Mattioli of Human Rights Watch. "And that's why the Mladic case will be interesting."
The third man at the pinnacle of the command structure was former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. The three were accused of plotting together to drive non-Serbs from areas of Bosnia to carve a Greater Serbia from the ruins of Yugoslavia.
Milosevic died in 2006 as his 4-year-long trial in The Hague was nearing an end.