The war crimes trial of ex-Bosnian Serb commander General Ratko Mladic has been delayed by a judge in The Hague because of “errors” by prosecutors in disclosing evidence to defence lawyers.
Opening statements had only been completed on the second day of the hearing, when Alphons Orie told the UN Yugoslav war crimes tribunal he was delaying the case due to “significant disclosure errors” by prosecutors who are obliged to share all their evidence with Mladic's defence team.
He says judges are still analysing the “scope and full impact” of the error and told the trial he aims to establish a new starting date “as soon as possible”.
Prosecutors had already admitted the errors and did not object to a delay in the trial.
Mladic's lawyer has asked for a six-month delay.
Earlier, prosecutors wrapped up their opening statement in the trial by recounting in painstaking and chilling detail the systematic murder by Bosnian Serb forces commanded by Mladic of thousands of Muslim men and boys in Bosnia’s Srebrenica enclave in July 1995, Europe’s worst massacre since the Second World War.
Exact numbers of the Srebrenica massacre range from 7,000 to 8,000.
“In a period of only five days, from July 12-16, 1995, the armed forces of (Bosnian Serb leader) Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic expelled the civilian population of Srebrenica and murdered over 7,000 Srebrenica men and boys,” prosecutor Peter McCloskey said.
Mladic's army “carried out their murderous orders with ... dedication and military efficiency”, he added.
The 70-year-old former commander of the Bosnian Serb army showed no emotion as Mr McCloskey showed judges a fleeting video of what he said were the bodies executed Muslim men piled in front of a bullet-riddled wall.
As the trial got under way on Wednesday, the court's public gallery had been crowded with relatives of the dead men who angrily exchanged hand gestures with Mladic through the bulletproof glass screen separating them.
Yesterday, most of the survivors had left and videos showing a bullish Mladic strutting through the deserted streets of Srebrenica and berating the commander of Dutch UN peacekeepers were greeted largely with silence and occasional murmurs.
One woman, Hatidza Mehmedovic, wept in the court’s lobby during a break in the proceedings.
“I buried both of my sons and my husband. Now I live alone with memories of my children,” she said.
“I would never wish even Mladic to go through what I go through. Not Mladic or Karadzic. Let God judge them.”
Mladic is accused of commanding Bosnian Serb troops who waged a campaign of murder and persecution to drive Muslims and Croats out of territory they considered part of Serbia. His troops rained shells and snipers’ bullets down on civilians in the 44-month-long siege of the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo.
He has refused to enter pleas, but denies wrongdoing.
If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
Mladic fled into hiding after the war and spent 15 years as a fugitive before international pressure on Serbia led to his arrest last year. Now he is held in a one-man cell in a special international wing of a Dutch jail.
But the fact that he is jailed and on trial is seen as another victory for international justice.
Mr McCloskey outlined how, after overrunning Srebrenica, Mladic's forces summoned buses and trucks from across Bosnia to transport women and girls out of the enclave and to move captured men to schools and other public buildings.
The men were then driven to remote execution locations and gunned down by firing squads and their bodies were ploughed into mass graves.
The prosecutor said so far the remains – sometimes no more than a couple of bones – of 5,977 victims have been exhumed, and showed photographs of an exposed mass grave to underscore to judges that the victims were not war casualties.
One photo showed a skull, its eyes covered by a blindfold. Another showed a pair of hands bound behind a body’s back.