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THE HAGUE — A United Nations war crimes tribunal convicted Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb general, on Wednesday of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity in the slaughter of Bosnian Muslims during the breakup of Yugoslavia.
From 1992 to 1995, the tribunal found, Mr. Mladic, 75, was the chief military organizer of the campaign to drive Muslims, Croats and other non-Serbs off their lands to cleave a new homogeneous statelet for Bosnian Serbs.
Along with Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb president, who was convicted on similar charges last year, Mr. Mladic was found to have orchestrated a campaign of so-called ethnic cleansing that made the small nation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, with its 4.5 million people, the site of some of the worst atrocities of Europe’s bloody 20th century.
Mr. Mladic in Sarajevo in 1993.
© Gabriel Bouys/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
The deadliest year of the campaign was 1992, when 45,000 people died, often in their homes, on the streets or in a string of concentration camps. Others perished in the nearly four-year siege of Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, where snipers and shelling terrorized residents for more than three years, and in the mass executions of 8,000 Muslim men and boys after Mr. Mladic’s forces overran the United Nations-protected enclave of Srebrenica.
Survivors called Mr. Mladic the Butcher of Bosnia. His defense lawyers argued that Mr. Mladic was largely following orders from politicians above him, and that any atrocities committed by his subordinates and militias were not done at his direction.
Prosecutors have asked for a life sentence for Mr. Mladic. The presiding judge, Alphons Orie, agreed.
Mr. Mladic’s crimes “rank among the most heinous known to humankind” including genocide and extermination as a crime against humanity, the judge said.
Surprising many observers, Mr. Mladic appeared in court on Wednesday, wearing a dark business suit and a red tie, as the three-judge panel handed down its ruling.
He sat impassively for the first 45 minutes of the judge’s address. But his lawyers requested a five-minute break to allow him to go to the bathroom, and Mr. Mladic did not reappear for almost an hour. Reporters were told he was having his blood pressure checked.
When he returned, he began shouting at the court in a dispute over his blood pressure. “You are lying, you are lying, you are lying,” Mr. Mladic said to the judge. “I don’t feel good.”
The judge ordered his removal, and guards grabbed him by both arms to take him out. Mr. Mladic was able to see and hear the rest of the proceedings on a screen elsewhere in the courthouse.
The verdict reverberated throughout the court building in The Hague — where dozens of survivors of the bloodshed, many of them widows or refugees, filled the public gallery, while others watched from monitors set up by the tribunal or followed it via videostream — and across Europe.
In Bosnia, survivors and victims wept and exulted as the verdict was broadcast live on television and the internet, while the reaction was muted in Serbia, where nationalism is rising once again.
The United Nations human rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, welcomed Mr. Mladic’s conviction as “a momentous victory for justice” that served notice to perpetrators of crimes, however powerful, that they would not escape justice.
“Mladic is the epitome of evil,” Mr. al-Hussein said in a statement issued by his office in Geneva minutes after the judge pronounced the sentence.
The verdict was hardly in doubt, given the volume of evidence produced during the trial, which began in 2012. The sessions were at times halted or cut short because of Mr. Mladic’s health problems, and the trial itself was extended after the discovery of more mass graves.
Citing his fragile health, Mr. Mladic’s lawyers had urged that the verdict be postponed. Judges rejected those arguments — mindful, perhaps, of the case of Slobodan Milosevic, the former Serbian president who died in a prison cell in 2006 as his four-year trial was drawing to a close.
Mr. Mladic’s case was the last major trial handled by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, which the United Nations established in 1993 in response to the atrocities. After one final appellate ruling, expected later this month, the tribunal will close its doors; a small successor court will deal will other pending appeals and the retrial of two former intelligence chiefs from Serbia.
To varying degrees, Croats, Serbs and Bosnian Muslims (also known as Bosniaks) all committed atrocities during the 1991-95 violence that ensued after Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia voted for independence from Yugoslavia.
A number of Croats and Bosniaks were convicted by the tribunal. But the majority of trials involved Bosnian Serbs, because crimes in the name of Serbian interests and extreme nationalism were committed on a far greater scale. Of the 130,000 people who lost their lives in the Balkan wars of the 1990s, 100,000 died in Bosnia.
Along with Mr. Mladic, the other two men seen as among the main instigators of the bloodshed were Mr. Milosevic, who provided the Bosnian Serb separatists with funding, weapons and military personnel, and Mr. Karadzic, who was convicted last year and sentenced to 40 years in prison.
Mr. Mladic and Mr. Karadzic were among the first to be indicted — and among the last ones to face the tribunal, having spent years on the run. While Mr. Mladic’s political boss, Mr. Karadzic, used elaborate disguises, Mr. Mladic was long shielded by the Serbian military, which paid his salary and to this day still pays him a pension. At first he resided at military sites and retreats in Serbia, but eventually went underground, protected by loyalist followers.
If Mr. Karadzic was the brains behind the ethnic cleansing operations, Mr. Mladic was the muscle, leading a proxy army largely financed, armed and staffed at the top by Serbia.
The charges against the two men were similar, although several crucial differences stand out.
One was the compelling trail Mr. Mladic himself left by recording his meetings and telephone conversations with military officials, politicians or foreign envoys. They were discovered behind a false wall in Mr. Mladic’s home; included in that cache were 18 notebooks representing his wartime diaries, an extraordinary windfall, prosecutors said.
Mr. Mladic, whose handwriting was authenticated, listed meetings, including numerous times with the Serbian president, topics of discussion, strategy laid out, orders for ammunition and troop movements. In one telling entry on May 7, 1992, Mr. Mladic wrote that the Bosnian Serb leadership had discussed six strategic goals, of which the first and most important was “to separate from the Croats and Muslims forever.”
None of the 3,500 pages directly showed his own hand in crimes and few entries exist, or survive, from the days of the notorious Srebrenica massacre. But many entries were used in various prosecutions, including Mr. Mladic’s, providing the kind of firsthand, dot-connecting accounts needed to prove a criminal case.
It was also the first trial in which prosecutors presented evidence from recently explored mass graves around an open-pit mine at Tomasica near Prijedor in Northern Bosnia.
They proved to be a dumping ground for Bosniaks killed or starved to death during the ethnic cleansing campaign around Prijedor, where the police operated concentration camps that became notorious for torture and rape.
The International Commission on Missing Persons, which uses DNA testing, said this month that so far 656 bodies from the mine have been identified, most of them men, all of them in civilian clothes. Those identified were among the nearly 6,000 people reported missing around Prijedor in the summer of 1992.
But more bodies are emerging, including remains that were later dug up and moved to other graves to hide the magnitude of the crime.
Mr. Mladic’s diary notes a request in 1992 from Simo Drljaca, the Prijedor police chief, asking for the army’s help to remove about 5,000 bodies buried in Tomasica by “burning them or grinding them or in any other way.” Mr. Mladic wrote that he replied, “You killed them, you bury them.”
At the height of the ethnic cleansing campaign, in 1992, close to 45,000 were killed or missing, almost half of the 100,000 who died in the Bosnian war. That year, the number of Bosnian refugees and internally displaced persons reached 2.6 million.
In court Mr. Mladic has been unpredictable, veering between indifference and angry outbursts, charming or mocking his judges, shouting orders at his lawyers because he can barely write notes after suffering strokes.
He called the charges against him “monstrous” and said he was “defending Serbia and the Serbian people, not Ratko Mladic.”
But his failing health has been a continuing problem. Pressed by the judges, the prosecution had cut back about 40 percent of the crimes cited in an earlier indictment.
Doctors said he had suffered two strokes before arriving in The Hague, and since then he has suffered from high blood pressure, diabetes, kidney stones and other ailments. Several crises, including what is presumed to have been a heart attack, have forced a halt in the proceedings and a reduction of weekly sessions to four days instead of five.
Defense lawyers repeatedly warned that his health had deteriorated, and just this month prosecutors privately expressed worry that he might not live until the verdict or would be unable to attend.
Although defendants have a right to be present for their verdict, there was a precedent for issuing a judgment in the absence of the accused. Last year, the tribunal acquitted a Serbian nationalist, Vojislav Seselj, of war crimes and of crimes against humanity; Mr. Seselj was in Serbia when the decision was handed down.