Former Bosnian Serb military chief Gen. Ratko Mladic launched the defense case in his long-running U.N. trial in the Hague on Monday with the testimony of a former Serb army officer who claimed he was never ordered to fire on civilians in the besieged Bosnian capital during the country's bloody war.
The testimony of Mile Sladoje, a wartime Serb military commander in Sarajevo, likely set the tone for Mladic's attempt to clear his name of charges that he was responsible for a string of Serb atrocities throughout the bloody 1992-1995 conflict.
Dubbed the “Butcher of Bosnia,” Mladic is accused, in an 11-count indictment, of being the mastermind behind a deadly 44-month siege of the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo, and the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in which some 8,000 Muslim men were killed.
He is also accused of waging a “campaign of terror” against Sarajevo’s civilians through indiscriminate shelling and employing snipers during the siege, in which thousands of civilians died.
Mladic denies the charges and insists his forces were trying to defend Serbs during the 1992-1995 conflict that left some 100,000 people dead and 2.2 million others homeless. Mladic faces a maximum life sentence if convicted.
The 72-year-old, dressed in a black suit, black tie and white shirt, stood and saluted Sladoje as he entered court at the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal.
"All military activities were defense activities," Mladic lawyer Miodrag Stojanovic told judges in a summary of Sladoje's seven-page written testimony.
Sladoje "never received an order from his superior command, nor did he issue an order... to attack civilian facilities," Stojanovic said.
Sladoje showed judges a map of Sarajevo dotted with circles which he said were considered legitimate targets by Serb forces.
"There was no part of the city that did not have a military installation or facility," his written statement said.
Mladic has also been charged for taking hostage a group of more than 200 United Nations peacekeepers during the conflict, and keeping them in strategic locations as “human shields” against NATO air strikes.
Presiding Judge Alphons Orie has given Mladic’s lawyers 207 hours to question witnesses — the same amount of time given to the prosecution, who finished their case earlier this year, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia said, according to a release. There was no restriction on the number of witnesses defense lawyers could call, it added.
Serbs deny systematically targeting civilians with mortars and sniper rifles during the siege of Sarajevo, saying that they were shooting at Bosnian Muslim forces holed up in buildings throughout the city.
Mladic was first indicted in 1995 but went into hiding after the war and was not arrested until May 2011. The former general's trial started a year later and prosecutors wrapped up their case in February.
In January, he refused to testify at the trial of Radovan Karadzic, his political counterpart at the time, repeatedly dismissing the U.N. Yugoslav war crimes tribunal as “satanic.”