THE HAGUE, Netherlands – An apparent clerical error prompted judges to postpone the long-awaited war crimes trial of former Bosnian Serb military leader Ratko Mladic on Thursday, possibly for months.
The delay cast a shadow over one of the court's biggest cases — and over the reputation of the court itself, where most prominent trials have proceeded at a snail's pace, frustrating many victims.
It also highlighted problems faced by international tribunals in prosecuting sweeping indictments covering allegations of atrocities spanning years in countries far from the courts where defendants face justice.
"It is fraught with delay because of the volume of documentation and scope of alleged crimes," Richard Dicker, the director of Human Rights Watch's international justice program, said in a telephone interview Thursday. "Add to that the need to translate and it really takes it to a whole new level of complexity that you don't see in domestic trials."
Presiding judge Alphons Orie said he was delaying the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal case due to "significant disclosure errors" by prosecutors, who are obliged to share all evidence with Mladic's lawyers.
Orie said judges will analyze the "scope and full impact" of the problem and aim to set a new starting date as soon as possible. The presentation of evidence was supposed to begin later this month.
Prosecutors had already acknowledged the errors and did not object to the delay. Mladic's attorney has asked for six months to study the materials.
Mladic is accused of commanding Bosnian Serb troops who waged a campaign of killings and persecution to drive Muslims and Croats out of territory they considered part of Serbia during Bosnia's 1992-95 war.
His troops rained shells and snipers' bullets down on civilians in the 44-month siege of the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo. They also executed thousands of Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica, the site of Europe's worst massacre since World War II. The war itself left over 100,000 dead.
Mladic has refused to enter pleas to the charges but denies wrongdoing. If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
Court spokeswoman Nerma Jelacic told The Associated Press that much of the material the defense did not get was about witnesses prosecutors had intended to call to testify before the court's summer break. Prosecutors acknowledged the error "could impact on the fairness of the trial," she said.
The tribunal published a letter from prosecutors to Mladic's lawyer that said the missing documents were not uploaded onto an electronic database accessible to defense lawyers. "We sincerely apologize for the inconvenience," it read.
Hatidza Mehmedovic, whose husband and two sons were slain by Serb forces during the Srebrenica massacre, said she hoped the delay would not be too long.
"We are worried he won't live to see justice," Mehmedovic said in the tribunal's lobby as she prepared to make the long trek back to Srebrenica.
Her fears are not without reason. Mladic, now 70, suffered three strokes during his 15 years as a fugitive, his lawyer says.
In another case that suffered repeated delays, former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic died of a heart attack in 2006 before judges could deliver a verdict in his trial, which dragged on for four years. Milosevic was accused of orchestrating deadly conflicts across the Balkans in the 1990s.
The delays in Milosevic's trial were largely caused by his ill health and his lengthy political grandstanding while acting as his own defense lawyer.
"The script we have seen used for Milosevic's trial is now repeating," said Enisa Salcinovic, who said she was attacked by Serb soldiers under Mladic's command. "First, they did not want to capture him while he was healthy enough to stand a trial and now when he is sick they will let the trial drag on just as they did with Milosevic."
Suspects like Milosevic and his Bosnian Serb counterpart Radovan Karadzic — whose trial is at its half-way stage after starting in October 2009 — "seek to use the criminal process as a platform to expound their views and rewrite history in a way that is favorable to them," said Dicker.
The Yugoslav court is not the only war crimes tribunal to suffer. Cases at the International Criminal Court and the trial of former Liberian President Charles Taylor also have been hit by lengthy delays.
The U.N. Security Council set up the Yugoslav tribunal with war still raging in Bosnia in an attempt to hold the perpetrators of massive crimes in the conflict criminally responsible.
The move was quickly followed by a similar court dealing with the genocide in Rwanda as activists pinned their hopes on international justice not only to deter crimes but also to promote reconciliation in countries torn apart by conflict. Temporary tribunals also have since been set up to deal with crimes in Sierra Leone, Lebanon, East Timor and Cambodia, followed in 2002 by the International Criminal Court, the first permanent war crimes tribunal.
Earlier Thursday, prosecutors wrapped up their opening statement in Mladic's genocide trial by recounting in chilling detail his forces' systematic slayings in Srebrenica in July 1995.
Mladic's army "carried out their murderous orders with ... dedication and military efficiency," prosecutor Peter McCloskey said.
Mladic showed no emotion as McCloskey showed video footage of what he said were the bodies of executed Muslim men piled in front of a bullet-riddled wall.
McCloskey described how Mladic's forces summoned buses and trucks from across Bosnia to transport women and girls out of the Srebrenica enclave. The Muslim men and boys were then driven to remote locations and gunned down by firing squads, their bodies plowed into mass graves.
The remains — sometimes no more than a couple of bones — of 5,977 victims have been exhumed so far, McCloskey said. Estimates of the dead run to 8,000.
He showed photographs of an exposed mass grave to underscore the point that the victims were not war casualties. One photo showed a skull, its teeth exposed and its eyes covered by a blindfold. Another showed a pair of hands bound with a strip of cloth behind a body's back.
In a video, Mladic was seen strutting through the deserted streets of Srebrenica and berating the commander of Dutch U.N. peacekeepers.
It was all too much for Mehmedovic, who wept in the court's lobby.
"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."
In Mladic's former wartime stronghold of Pale, Bosnian Serbs who regard him as a hero clapped each time he appeared on TV screens in cafes.
"I'm sorry to see our general being treated like this," said Bosnian Serb Milan Tadic. "We should all be ashamed of allowing this to be happening to him. He only defended the Serbs. He will always have support in Pale."
Sabina Niksic and Eldar Emric in Sarajevo contributed.