Ratko Mladic is eating strawberries and receiving family visits in a Serbian jail, but as early as Monday the ex-general could be on his way to face a war-crimes tribunal in The Hague, possibly joining his former ally Radovan Karadzic on trial for some of the worst horrors of the Balkan wars.
The former Bosnian Serb army commander known for his cruelty and arrogance began issuing demands from behind bars Friday, calling for a TV set and Tolstoy novels, and regaining some of his trademark hubris after a pre-dawn raid in a Serbian village the day before ended his 16 years on the run.
Now a disheveled old man, his family claim he’s too ill to stand up to the rigors of a genocide trial and that he’s not guilty of crimes including his alleged role in the worst atrocity in Europe since World War II, the massacre that left 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the Srebrenica enclave in Bosnia dead.
Serbia’s war crimes court ruled that te 69-year-old is fit to stand trial and that conditions have been met for him to be handed over to the U.N. tribunal in The Hague. A defense lawyer said Mladic would appeal the decision on Monday. The former fugitive could be extradited within hours if that appeal is rejected.
His defense is demanding that an “independent medical commission” examine Mladic — preferably one from Russia, a historical friend of the Serbs. Instead the government dispatched the health minister, a former friend, who deemed him stable.
Serbian war crimes prosecutors argue that the defense was simply trying to delay the extradition, and the tribunal promises it is capable of dealing with any health problems.
Mladic was in command of the Bosnian Serb army during the country’s 1992-95 war, which left more than 100,000 people dead and drove another 1.8 million from their homes. Thousands of Muslims and Croats were slain, tortured or expelled in a campaign to purge the region of non-Serbs.
Mladic’s ruthlessness was legendary: “Burn their brains!” he once bellowed as his men pounded Sarajevo with artillery fire. So was his opinion of himself: He nicknamed himself “God,” and kept goats which he was said to have named after Western leaders he despised.
He eluded the net of war crimes investigators for years after his 1995 indictment by the U.N. war crimes court on charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity — until going out into his garden for a pre-dawn walk.
New details emerged Friday of the raid, revealing it was more of a shot in the dark than a pinpoint operation. Police had been conducting similar operations throughout Serbia for years.
Two dozen masked, black-clad members of a team of special police had no specific intelligence that Mladic was inside a relative’s yellow brick house in Lazarevo, a village they were visiting for the first time.
Speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information, Serbian police officials told the AP that Mladic identified himself immediately after his arrest, handing over two pistols that he was carrying without a fight.
“Good work,” Mladic told the officers, according to Serbian police chief Ivica Dacic. “You found the one you were looking for.”
A police photo of Mladic showed him looking hollow-cheeked and shrunken after a decade and a half on the run, a far cry from the beefy commander he once was. The photo taken moments after his arrest in a tiny northern Serbian village shows a clean-shaven Mladic with thinning hair and wearing a navy blue baseball hat. He looks up with wide eyes, as if in surprise.
By Friday, however, after a night’s sleep, Mladic was digging in his heels, refusing to remove the cap, demanding he receive money from his military pension, and requesting a visit to the Belgrade grave of his daughter Ana, who killed herself in 1994, said a judicial official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
He received a visit from his son, who said if Mladic is extradited he will argue that he’s innocent of war crimes charges.
“His stand is that he’s not guilty of what he’s being accused of,” Darko Mladic told reporters outside the Belgrade court.
The chief prosecutor of the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal said he was considering whether to put Mladic on trial together with former Bosnian Serb political leader Karadzic. Serge Brammertz said that ideally he would have both men in one trial, facing charges of jointly orchestrating Serb atrocities throughout the 1992-95 Bosnian war.
Karadzic’s ongoing trial started in 2009 and a Mladic trial would not begin for months, but Brammertz said he is confident he has “strong and credible evidence” against him.
Serbia had been under intense pressure to find the war crimes suspect, with the EU insisting that his capture was necessary for its membership bid and Brammertz accusing the country of a lack of cooperation in tracking him down.
While in Belgrade in the late ’90s and early 2000s, Mladic showed up at soccer games, dined in plush restaurants and frequented elite cafes.
Although he went underground in 2002, as recently as 2004 Mladic was seen driving a battered, boxy Yugo car in Belgrade — without the six black-clad bodyguards with shaven heads who had typically escorted him.
Dacic said new police leadership increased the number of people hunting for Mladic by 50 percent. Police officials said they learned that Mladic moved into the largely Bosnian Serb village of Lazarevo about two years ago, figuring he could be safe with his relatives there.
But, Mladic turns out not to have had the large support network of hardline supporters that many believed had helped him hide out for so long, Dacic said.
“Mladic lived alone with his relatives, without any financial means,” the chief told reporters Friday. “The stories that he had a major ring of security and many helpers turned out not to be true.”
Even so, some residents of Lazarevo remained defiant.
“I know everybody in this village. Even if we saw him, they would have never been able to find him, if we knew,” said villager Nedeljko Arsic. “we would have hidden him and they would have never been able to find him and arrest him.”
Serbian officials said no one will pick up the $10 million (euro7 million) reward for Mladic’s arrest because police were not acting on a tip when they arrested him.
The arrest was trumpeted by the government as a victory for a country worthy of EU membership and Western embrace.
Aida Cerkez in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Danica Kirka in Belgrade and Slobodan Lekic in Brussels contributed to this report.