In an April 16, 1994, photo, Bosnian Serb army commander Ratko Mladic, center,… (Emil Vas / Associated Press )
Witnesses die. Memories fade. Victims move on with their lives, leaving no forwarding addresses.
The passage of nearly two decades since the most heinous crimes attributed to Bosnian Serb Gen. Ratko Mladic could impede his prosecution at the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague, legal analysts say.
But those familiar with Mladic's alleged role in the worst atrocities to afflict Europe since the Nazis insist his conviction is assured despite those complications because of the enduring pain suffered by the victims of ethnic cleansing.
"There are certainly witnesses available, and for Mladic, they will come. There are people who would walk to The Hague for this," said Marko Prelec, Balkans project director for the International Crisis Group and a former prosecution investigator at the tribunal in the Dutch administrative capital.
Mladic, now a withered old man of 69 but a barrel-chested nationalist during the 1990s wars for Serbian domination, was arrested Thursday in a small Serbian town and moved to a jail in Belgrade, where he was awaiting extradition to The Hague to face trial on charges including genocide.
Mladic is accused of commanding Serb forces in the July 1995 massacre of about 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the Bosnian enclave of Srebrenica. He also faces charges of directing the deadly 1992-95 bombardment of civilians in Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital demolished by unrelenting artillery barrages from Serb-held mountain strongholds towering over the city.
Bosnian Serbs under Mladic's command routed hundreds of thousands of Muslims and Croats from their homes during the war years, claiming to be retaking traditional Serb territory lost under Ottoman Turkish occupation and the communist regime of Marshal Tito. Many of the displaced never returned, and untold thousands have since emigrated from the war-ravaged country.
"From any prosecutor's perspective, the passage of time is not a good thing. Witnesses die. Witnesses disappear. Memories fade. And in those ways the passage of time makes the prosecutor's burden heavier," said Richard Dicker, director of Human Rights Watch's international justice program. "But in this instance, the office of the prosecutor at the Yugoslav tribunal undoubtedly made a tenacious effort to nail down everything that it felt it would need for an eventual trial."
Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, the architect of the Balkan conflicts, had been on trial at The Hague for four years when he was found dead in his cell in 2006, the victim of an apparent heart attack. His Bosnian Serb political ally, Radovan Karadzic, was captured in 2008 after 13 years on the lam and remains at the tribunal detention facility awaiting resumption of his trial.
Defense attorneys for Mladic would likely try to impugn witnesses' testimony on grounds that their recollections may be faulty, said Diane Marie Amann, an international law professor at the University of Georgia who has followed war crimes cases in The Hague and at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But Amann said prosecutors probably have sufficient evidence despite Mladic's 16 years of evading arrest.
"This is the tribunal finally getting custody of the big fish after spending years pursuing the smaller fish that answered to Mladic," she said. "Many of the people with whom he is alleged to have engaged in criminal activity have already been tried and convicted by the tribunal. The prosecution has already put on witnesses and established a record of the facts that it can reintroduce in this trial and build on."
Eli J. Richardson, the U.S. Justice Department's former legal advisor to Serbia and now a lawyer in private practice, said bringing Mladic to justice will strengthen authorities in the Balkans trying to close the bloody chapter of the 1990s and reintegrate with the rest of Europe.
"The one remaining fugitive [indicted by The Hague] is Goran Hadzic, and this arrest does send a message to him," said Richardson. "I'm sure he will be sleeping less well tonight."
Former Vienna bureau chief Williams covered the Balkans for The Times in the 1990s. She is now based in Los Angeles.