A War Criminal's Arrest

Is Serbia's EU membership bid connected to Ratko Mladic’s downfall?

Former Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic was one of the world’s most sought after war criminals who had eluded the United Nations (UN) War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague since his indictment 16 years ago. But the hunt for Mladic came to an end on Wednesday with his capture in a small town not far from Belgrade, Serbia’s capital. When arrested, the 69-year-old fugitive was living in a relative’s house under a false name.

“It’s an important day for justice,” said Serge Brammertz, the UN’s chief prosecutor. After his extradition to Holland, Brammertz will try Mladic for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Serbian President Boris Tadic announced Mladic’s arrest on Thursday, after which accolades poured in from around the world. The British Foreign Minister William Hague spoke of “a historic moment.” President Obama also praised the arrest at the G8 summit meeting he was attending in France with other world leaders.

“May the families of Mladic’s victims find some solace in today’s arrest, and may this deepen the ties among the people of the region,” Obama said in reaction to the news.

But while the world community is right to celebrate a war criminal ending up in court to answer for his heinous crimes and that relatives of the deceased will find some comfort, like with Osama bin Laden, however, uncomfortable questions remain to be answered. How was the former Serb general, for example, able to escape the Serbian authorities’ attention for so long when he was living so close to Belgrade at a relative’s house? And why were his whereabouts suddenly “discovered” only now 16 years after the 1995 indictment was handed down?

The name Mladic is forever connected with the worst atrocity of the 1992 to 1995 civil war in Bosnia that saw 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys slaughtered by Mladic’s Bosnian Serb forces after they had captured the town of Srebrenica in an UN-protected zone in 1995. After chasing away a weak and lightly-armed Dutch NATO contingent, Mladic’s soldiers shot the boys and men, many of them disarmed prisoners of war, and buried them in mass graves. It was the worst massacre in Europe since World War Two and led NATO to intervene in the Balkan conflict.

Last year, several heads of state and relatives of the deceased marked the fifteenth anniversary of the massacre. But all traces of Mladic, who was present for some of the barbaric killings, earning for himself the nickname “The Butcher of Srebrenica,” had supposedly been lost. Until this week.

With Mladic’s arrest, Serbia gains a lot more than just international praise. The country had been accused of non-cooperation in finding and bringing Mladic to justice, which was a major obstacle blocking Serbia from acquiring a coveted European Union (EU) membership.

Serge Brammertz, for example, was to deliver a damaging report next month “critical of Serbia’s lack of cooperation” in locating Mladic and other Serbian criminals, which would have hurt Serbia’s admission chances even more. But with Mladic’s capture, the Brammertz report disappears and the UN’s chief prosecutor joins the chorus in singing Serbia’s praise, while its EU admission chances take a giant step towards realization. The EU’s enlargement commissioner confirmed this on Wednesday when he said “…Serbia is closer to the European Union than it was yesterday.

“I hope that now the doors stand open,” said a hopeful President Tadic, who, one German newspaper reports, “made it clear Belgrade expects a speedy entrance to the EU” in return for Mladic’s apprehension.”

Serbia’s joining the EU has always been Tadic’s goal. America would also like to see Serbia in the EU, since it would loosen that country’s ties with Russia. But even without membership, the newspaper states Serbia stands to gain financially from the EU for Mladic’s capture. Serbia was losing 1.2 billion dollars a year while its most famous fugitive was at large. Certain EU funds were blocked and access to favourable credits were in short supply. That will now change.

The reason Serbia “found” Mladic this week after so many years of supposedly searching so long and hard was plainly evident at his first extradition hearing. He was described as appearing “frail” and walking “very slowly.” A prosecutor said he is taking a lot of medication, and his lawyer stated his physical condition is so poor, he can’t communicate, which caused the judge hearing his case to cut short the questioning. One of Mladic’s arms is also apparently paralysed, possibly due to a stroke.

So it seems obvious that if Tadic was going to realize his dream of getting into the EU, he had to act quickly. A dead Mladic would be of no value to his plans for Serbia. Besides, a very sick Mladic is probably not gong to be extradited anywhere, as his lawyer maintains, which would help satisfy the Serbian nationalists who regard him as a hero and are very upset with his arrest. Altogether, Brammertz last year estimated 65 percent of Serbs were against the still elusive Mladic’s apprehension.

Like Pakistan’s intelligence agency with Osama bin Laden, Serbian security forces were also accused of protecting Mladic. No reason seems to exist why Mladic could not have been arrested years ago. After his indictment, he was still seen at soccer games and in restaurants in Belgrade. He also remained in the Serbian army until he was forced to resign in 2001. His residence in Belgrade was also known. After 2001, Mladic went underground where he was “still protected by elements of the security service and army.” His last reported presence in Belgrade was in 2006.

“The Serbs seemed to look wherever Mladic was certain not to be,” reported the German publication Spiegel.

While Mladic’s arrest outwardly does serve the cause of justice and reconciliation, important if Serbia is to move forward and join the international community, its apparent cynicism however undermines these virtues. Besides, what kind of a warning does his arrest convey to other would-be criminals if the message is you will be protected and won’t be made to answer for your crimes until you are very old and sick, if ever? And since this very important arrest was not done for the right reasons, the Serbian government of Boris Tadic has failed its test of credibility, integrity and trustworthiness both inside and outside its own borders.