In the hours leading up to the final verdict against former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, the American channel PBS premiered a documentary about the trial of another wartime Bosnian Serb leader who is awaiting his final sentence for the atrocities committed in the country, Ratko Mladic.
Mladic, who was commander-in-chief of Bosnian Serb armed forces during the 1992-95 Bosnian War, is appealing the life sentence he received in November 2017 from the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) for multiple counts of war crimes, including the ethnic cleansing of Bosniaks and Croats during the war in areas under his command, and also for his involvement in the 1995 Srebrenica genocide.
CNN’s Christiane Amanpour spoke to Henry Singer, co-director of the PBS documentary titled The Trial of Ratko Mladic. The film focuses on the four-year trial of Mladic, and talks about all of the charges from the indictments against Mladic and Karadzic.
Amanpour, who had reported from the Bosnian War, asked Singer about the parallels between the resurgence of nationalism in the western world in recent years and the nationalism in the Balkans of the early 1990s during the breakup of Yugoslavia.
"When we started the film, we had no idea obviously that it was going to be so, sadly, topical. We wanted to make the film because it's a historic trial, and my co-director and I felt no one knows what the ICTY is doing, it's an extraordinary institution, it's bringing alleged war criminals to trial. And yet, in the six years it took to make this film, the world has changed. We've seen Trump as president, Brexit, we have a lot of anti-immigration rhetoric - and a lot of it is built on nationalism. So in a funny kind of way this trial and this film, and the war in the Balkans is a kind of a past microcosm of the events we are seeing today," Singer said.
Singer went on to talk about how filmmakers dealth with the contrast of what wartime Mladic was like and the frail old man sitting in the Hague courtroom during his trial. Mladic was at large for years before he was arrested in Serbia in 2011. By then he was 68, and his health had visibly deteriorated due to a series of strokes he had suffered in the meantime.
"We tried to get access to him, we tried to get an interview with him. And he played us, to certain extent. And as result we saw the Mladic that, no doubt, you were very familiar with back when you covered the war. Because he would say he wanted to do it, and he would write a letter - one needed a letter from him to interview him - and then that seemed to be forgotten, and he'd retract it. In the courtroom, most of the time he was quite calm, most of the time he watched proceedings. His health, terrible health when he arrived, became much better under the care of the medical authorities in the detention centre... Occasionally you'd see what I would call the Mladic of the 1990s. The rest of the time, he was rather passive, until at the end of the film - viewers will see at the end of the film - he has an outburst at the end of the film where he basically says the court is a kangaroo court, created by NATO, et cetera... In the film we had to use clips like that to try to remind the viewers of who Mladic the warrior was, because we worried they would forget who was on trial, it was not this frail man," Singer told Amanpour.
In many clips from the period, Mladic is seen talking about defending Serbs, which he perceives as having a long history of victimhood. Amanpour asked Singer how did that narrative play out when presented in the ICTY courtroom.
"As you know, in that region, the past is the present. Every ethnic population has its own narrative. And as you said, the Serbs have a narrative of victimhood, going right back to the invasion of the Turks and the Ottoman empire in the 14th century. How did it play in the courtroom? From what we observed... what the court was interested in was the facts. The defence would bring in witnesses to talk about that narrative, and in watching the court, and certainly in that verdict, I don't think that that played particularly well. We know, and the film shows, that he was guilty of 10 of 11 counts - the only count he wasn't guilty of was the count of genocide in six municipalities," Singer said.
Singer added that the unprecedented access the filmmakers had to both Mladic's defence team and prosecutors at the ICTY was largely thanks to luck and timing. Mladic's case was the last major case the ICTY processed before it closed in 2017.
"We went o the ICTY towards the end of its life. I think the institution felt we were doing extraordinary work, and no one really knows what we are doing. When it came to (Mladic's) defence, I think the defence felt 'What do we have to lose? World opinion is against us...' With the prosecution, again, there was a certain amount of hesitancy, but mostly I think we were lucky in terms of the timing. They want the story out there, of the extraordinary work that the ICTY is doing." Singer told Amanpour.
Mladic's defence appealed the life sentenced handed to him in November 2017, and the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals (MICT) - a successor body to the ICTY - is expected to issue a final ruling on the appeal in 2020.