An undated picture of Ratko Mladic provided by the Serbian Press Daily newspaper. (AFP/Getty Images )
Reporting from Belgrade, Serbia — If Ratko Mladic is extradited on charges of mass murder, as even he now seems to believe is inevitable, his own words may come back to haunt him. Thousands of them.
Prosecutors at the war crimes tribunal in The Hague are combing through a trove of diaries and audio recordings kept by the Bosnian Serb general throughout the 1992-95 Bosnian war. Mladic was an obsessive record-keeper, jotting down notes from even the briefest conversations.
The habit was evidence, some say, of an outsize personality convinced of its own importance. Prosecutors hope the documents will provide evidence to help convict Mladic of genocide and crimes against humanity.
Photos: Ratko Mladic and the Bosnian war
Wanted in connection with atrocities such as the execution of 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in the town of Srebrenica in 1995, Mladic was arrested Thursday after nearly 16 years on the run.
His lawyer, Milos Saljic, said Saturday that Mladic knows he will almost certainly be extradited. But Saljic said his client wants time "to recover a little bit first" in the jail where he is being held here in Belgrade, the Serbian capital.
Mladic, 69, intends to lodge an appeal Monday against a judge's ruling that he is fit for extradition. His lawyer and his family insist that the former military commander, his once-burly frame weakened by two strokes, is too infirm. But the appeal's chances of success are slim to none, meaning he could be put on a plane bound for the Netherlands before the day is out.
From his cell, Mladic also asked supporters to refrain from violence during a protest they plan for Sunday in central Belgrade. Many Serbs still consider him a national hero, in spite of the unspeakable brutality attributed to him.
"He is calling for there to be no bloodshed," Saljic told reporters after a jailhouse visit. "He does not want to be the cause of unrest."
The desire for "no bloodshed" seems almost cruelly ironic from a man accused of overseeing the Srebrenica massacre and of directing the nearly four-year siege of Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, where shelling and sniper fire killed 10,000 people.
Convicting him of war crimes could be a lengthy affair; the ongoing trial of Mladic's boss, Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic, brought up on similar charges, has been bogged down by delays.
But the unexpected discovery of a hidden cache of 18 of Mladic's notebooks, 120 audio recordings and a number of computer flash drives has given prosecutors a mine of information whose significance is still being plumbed. The chief prosecutor called the find "one of the most important sets of documents" the war crimes tribunal had ever received. It runs to 3,500 pages.
The material was concealed behind a false wall in Mladic's home, a three-story white stucco building where his wife still lives, in an affluent enclave on Belgrade's south side. Serbian authorities stumbled across the trove in February 2010 using special scanning equipment provided by Germany.
The notebooks, written in Cyrillic script in Mladic's own hand, were carefully wrapped in cellophane to prevent water and other damage, an indication that he wanted them preserved, said Dejan Anastasijevic, a journalist with the Serbian newsmagazine Vreme.
"When you look at his diaries, you can really see he was obsessed with recording or writing down every single conversation that he had," Anastasijevic said Saturday. "He was a control freak."
The Serbian government turned the material over to The Hague a few months later. Prosecutors have released only selected excerpts; Serbian news outlets have also leaked some of the documents.
There has been no word of a "smoking gun" that points unerringly to Mladic's culpability. Crucially, notes for the period leading up to the Srebrenica massacre in July 1995 are missing, suggesting that he knew of their importance and may have hidden them somewhere even more inaccessible.
Still, the material should help prosecutors.
"The diaries do show a level of command and control he exercised over his troops. The diaries also show that when he received information from his forces about the crimes they committed, he did absolutely nothing." Anastasijevic said. "It would take a complete idiot from the prosecution's point of view to botch this trial."
In one notebook, Mladic records a meeting attended by him, Karadzic and former Bosnian Croat political leader Jadranko Prlic. He quotes Prlic as saying, "We need to agree on 2-3 things today. Muslims are the common enemy. There are 2-3 ways to keep them down (first — militarily, by breaking their backbone)."
Prosecutors cited those notes in a motion in July 2010 to reopen the trial of Prlic and five other Croat officials.
At another meeting in 1995, Mladic tells an interlocutor that "the borders should be drawn, that people should be moved" in Bosnia, a euphemism, some say, for ethnic cleansing.
Why Mladic didn't destroy the diaries after his indictment in the weeks after the Srebrenica massacre in 1995 is impossible to say. Anastasijevic speculates that Mladic wanted to be able to look back on what he considered an epic, history-making career.
They may now help produce an ignominious end instead.
Photos: Ratko Mladic and the Bosnian war