After 16 Years On The Run, Gen. Mladic Captured

Guests

Amb. Vladimir Petrovic, Serbian ambassador to the U.S.
Diane Orentlicher, deputy, Office of War Crimes Issues, U.S. State Department

Gen. Ratko Mladic spent more than 15 years on the run after the UN War Crimes Tribunal indicted him on charges of genocide and other crimes committed during the war in Bosnia. Serbian Ambassador Vladimir Petrovic talks about the significance of Mladic's capture and the trial that lies ahead.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Serbian police arrested one of the world's most wanted fugitives today, Ratko Mladic, a former Bosnian Serb army commander indicted by the U.N. war crimes tribunal for genocide and other war crimes more than 15 years ago. He's accused of orchestrating the 1995 massacre at Srebrenica, where nearly 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were slaughtered over 10 days, the worst single atrocity in Europe since World War II. Mladic will be extradited to face trial before an international criminal tribunal at The Hague.

Ambassador Vladimir Petrovic is Serbia's ambassador to the United States and joins us here in Studio 3A. And nice to have you with us today.

Mr. VLADIMIR PETROVIC (Serbian Ambassador to the United States): Good afternoon. It's good to be here.

CONAN: And congratulations.

Mr. PETROVIC: Thank you so much.

CONAN: What took so long?

Mr. PETROVIC: Well, as you know, with some of the fugitives - and I think experience showed in the past couple of months - it's really hard to find them even when they're hiding in plain sight. We have been working - our security forces have been working hard on this for years. We were committed under the international and domestic legal obligation - and if you allow, even moral obligation - to do this, and finally it happened. Early this morning, Ratko Mladic was arrested by Serbian security forces and brought - he's going to be brought in front of the Hague tribunal in the days to come.

CONAN: You mentioned hiding in plain sight. There were times when he seemed to flaunt his fugitive status, attending soccer matches and going to a restaurant in Belgrade.

Mr. PETROVIC: Well, I can tell you for certain that in past - since President Tadic is in power and since the government of Serbia in past several years, this is one of our top priorities, and we have proven that numerous times. As you know, 45 people of Serbian origin that were in Serbia were arrested and extradited to the Hague tribunal by numerous Serbian governments, including president of the Republic of Srpska, Radovan Karadzic, who was arrested three years ago. And Ratko Mladic -there was no reason to hide him or not to - we were really working hard to arrest him, and we managed to do that today.

CONAN: There's always been suspicion that Mladic was being hidden by members of the Serbian military and intelligence. And as he was arrested today, was there any evidence of that?

Mr. PETROVIC: As I said, right now there's no evidence of that. And we have extradited 45 people, including two former presidents of Serbia, including President Milosevic, several generals, including Radovan Karadzic, who was a high-ranking person among Bosnian Serbs. So there was no reason not to arrest him, and we have proven that today.

CONAN: He had to be getting help from somebody, though. Are the people who have been harboring him, will they face charges in Serbia?

Mr. PETROVIC: Absolutely. As President Tadic in a statement said today, anybody who was helping him or was hiding him is going to face justice. The important thing that he is that he is arrested. All other people, if there was evidence that people were harboring him, we're going to prosecute them for sure.

CONAN: Today, Serbia raised the national security level and banned all gatherings after nationalist groups threatened to protest what they regard as treason by the government which arrested Mr. Mladic. Are you worried about disturbances in the streets?

Mr. PETROVIC: Absolutely not. And as you know, in all the countries there's always a minority of extremists. I was just looking at some reports that there were about 200 people in the streets of Belgrade, which is really minor, considering it's a three million people city. So we are not expecting any of the disturbances. That said, we have raised our level of threat, are going to watch carefully, but we're not going to let any disturbances happen.

CONAN: There is going to be another aspect of this, and Serbia seeking to join the European Union. That would have been vetoed by - certainly the Netherlands - had Mr. Mladic remained at large.

Mr. PETROVIC: To be honest with you, President Tadic said this numerously. This was our top priority regardless of - I know there were some reports that under some pressure we've been doing this. I think this was not just our legal obligation, but our moral obligation. And under any circumstances, even EU or not, we would have proceeded and arrested Ratko Mladic for the crimes that he allegedly committed in Bosnia. EU stays - is and stays our number one priority. We are looking forward of joining EU, and we are hopeful that path and that's going to happen pretty soon. We also are pushing - we have been leaders in reconciling in the region. We feel that that's the most important thing for the region. Serbia takes lead on it.

And we feel that all crimes, all war crimes should be prosecuted so that reconciliation can happen. So we feel that in all the former republics of Yugoslavia and the entire Balkan Region, we need to arrest people that were responsible for things that happened in the '90s, and I think Serbia has proven that numerous times. And I think this is the final proof that we are for it 100 percent.

CONAN: Well, you mentioned people still at large. There is one prominent person still at large, Goran Hadzic, a Croatian Serb leader indicted in 2004.

Mr. PETROVIC: As I said, 45 people have been arrested and sent to Hague. This one person is still at large. But he's - however, he's a lower level than Ratko Mladic. And I don't think there's any doubt in anybody's mind in Europe, in the United States or anywhere in the world that Serbia is committed to arrest this last person. And I am as - our president said today, we're going to work very hard and have him arrested hopefully soon and finish this operation completely.

CONAN: Obviously, some people tried - charged with genocide, well, they have to be arrested and tried. There is a larger issue, though, and that is national reconciliation. There are people who still believe that their cause was just, that they did the right thing, that they should not be prosecuted. How does the country go about that process of healing itself and educating some of those who still believe that these causes should be fought for?

Mr. PETROVIC: Well, I think Serbia was pretty open about it. If you watch national television of Serbia today - for example, I was watching, they are putting specials about the biography of Ratko Mladic, what he did, what he's charged for.

Serbian parliament passed a resolution on Srebrenica a year ago. It is the only parliament ever in the world to issue an apology for any crime committed, and that wasn't easy. President came out publicly to say we are very happy about the arrest and what he has done. So I think that's giving a pretty obvious example to the people of Serbia that, you know, it's time to move on, and we have to pay attention to our past and see what has been done and to reconcile.

CONAN: Ambassador Petrovic, thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Mr. PETROVIC: Thank you.

CONAN: Ambassador Vladimir Petrovic is Serbia's ambassador to the United States and he joins us here in studio 3A. Also here with us is Diane Orentlicher, now serving as deputy in the Office of War Crime Issues at the United States State Department, on leave from American University, where she's a professor of international law, and nice to have you with us today.

Ms. DIANE ORENTLICHER (Deputy, Office of War Crime Issues, State Department): It's a pleasure to be here.

CONAN: And does this close the books on Srebrenica?

Ms. ORENTLICHER: Well, it's an incredibly important milestone on Srebrenica. You know, I don't know when you can say you close the books. There's still a trial ahead. Others are still underway in The Hague on this. But I think there's no single moment that was more eagerly anticipated by victims of the genocide in Srebrenica than the apprehension of Mladic.

I've been to the region quite a few times over the years. As you know, he was first indicted in 1995, and so victims have waited a very, very long time for this moment. I've heard many survivors of the massacre in Srebrenica say that as long as Mladic remains at large, they won't feel like they've achieved justice. So I think this, I wouldn't say closes the book, but I would say it's a huge achievement.

CONAN: Remind us of what happened at Srebrenica. This is a long time ago. A lot of people will not remember.

Ms. ORENTLICHER: Well, I may defer to the ambassador for the specific details, but this was, as I think you said at the top of the hour, what has widely been described as the worst massacre in Europe since World War II.

In July of 1995, the so-called safe area of Srebrenica, where many thousands of people had fled to for protection, there was an assault, a really deadly encirclement of this area and then finally an onslaught that lasted several days, that claimed close to 8,000 innocent lives and has been legally judged by two international courts to be a genocide. That's a word that's not lightly used by international courts.

And so just a horrific, terrifying several days in which the world felt it had failed these people it had pledged to protect. But at least there was a resolve to provide justice for the crime that wasn't prevented and, at long last, the survivors of this terrible atrocity will face -will see justice.

CONAN: And obviously, the people who carried out these terrible crimes are those primarily responsible. But as you mentioned, this was a U.N.-protected zone. There were Dutch troops there who stood by, and there was no attempt to interfere with the massacre.

Ms. ORENTLICHER: Well, you know, there - that's another chapter of accountability that countries involved have addressed. And the U.N. itself did a study of the failures of the U.N. peacekeepers' accountability as a sort of widely-shared responsibility. And, yes, there were a lot of failures on the part of the international community as well that led to this happening.

What the International Criminal Tribunal in Yugoslavia as well as now regional courts in the Balkans are doing is addressing the dimension of that that involves criminal responsibility of the perpetrators and those who organized, ordered and abetted this massacre. And Serbia really deserves recognition for the hard, long investment that the Tadic government has made to bring this day about.

I think as Ambassador Petrovic indicated, this required really relentless dedication on the part of the Tadic government. And I believe it's a real tribute to the democratic transformation that the government achieved what we've long wanted to see happen facing really substantial obstacles to reach this moment.

I think it's also significant that the leadership that we heard from President Tadic and Ambassador Petrovic is part of the acknowledgment of responsibility. Ambassador Petrovic just now spoke about the moral responsibility to deal with these crimes. It's not simply a legal responsibility, although it is that as well. But hearing the leaders say this to the public I think is also a very significant indicator of progress.

CONAN: We're talking about the capture today of fugitive Ratko Mladic, who will face war crimes trials in The Hague. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Our guest is Diane Orentlicher, who's the deputy in the Office of War Crimes Issues at the U.S. State Department, on leave from a job as a professor of international law at American University. No small irony, the trial will be held in the Netherlands, in The Hague.

Prof. ORENTLICHER: And that's correct.

CONAN: And it is interesting, Radovan Karadzic, who's already there arrested three years ago, how is this going to affect his trial, do you think?

Prof. ORENTLICHER: Well - excuse me - Neal, if I could say first, the trial will be in The Hague before an international tribunal was established...

CONAN: Not before a Dutch court, yes.

Prof. ORENTLICHER: ...by the Security Council in 1993. But the first proceedings are before a Serbian court, and that itself I think is significant. It's - there's some symbolism there that I think we should acknowledge.

In a meaningful way, Serbia has become a partner in this international effort for justice. And Mladic's first court appearance is before a Serbian war crimes chamber in the capital. And it's that court that will make the first legal determination about his transfer to The Hague. I'm sorry...

CONAN: Mr. Karadzic is...

Prof. ORENTLICHER: Yes. Initially, the two were charged together in 1995. Mladic and Karadzic were both indicted twice in 1995 on genocide charges. Karadzic was arrested, as you noted, in 2008, and a decision was made to proceed with his trial because it was impossible to know exactly when Mladic would be arrested. But - so the Karadzic trial is underway.

Not surprisingly, Mladic's name his risen in a number of other prosecutions before the Yugoslavia tribunal. A number of persons have been tried and in many cases convicted of crimes associated with Mladic, but this will be the first opportunity to judge his personal, criminal responsibility.

CONAN: Should they be tried together?

Prof. ORENTLICHER: I think there was a strong argument for doing so had they been arrested at the same time. But at this point, it doesn't make sense. The Karadzic trial is well underway. And that was also long overdue, so I wouldn't want to see that disrupted.

CONAN: And at this point, is it difficult to go back in time this far and prove charges of genocide?

Prof. ORENTLICHER: I think, you know, the prosecutors always have to make out their case. They've been gathering evidence for a long, long time. It is, of course, difficult with the passage of time to identify the same witnesses you could have possibly had accessible a long time ago, but the prosecutors have been working on this along time.

I - if I can say, Neal, I think it's really important at a moment like this to acknowledge the victims - I alluded to them earlier. But this moment is, above all, their moment. I think many people deserve credit for bringing this moment about, but the survivors of Srebrenica have really relentlessly demanded justice.

They've been so frustrated for so many years. And I'm sure - I shouldn't say I'm sure, but I suspect they have mixed emotions at a moment like this. I think many of them have a sense of disbelief. It's a moment many began to doubt would ever come, but it was also something they never stopped desperately calling for. And so I'm sure there's some measure of profound relief that this has finally happened.

CONAN: And that they will have the opportunity to see the man responsible, allegedly responsible, for this massacre face his accusers.

Prof. ORENTLICHER: It's a really amazingly important thing to victims, to see someone who placed themselves in their eyes above any law, any reckoning, any account, and particularly when somebody has eluded justice for this long. This is just a very powerful moment. It doesn't take away the loss. It doesn't take away the grief or the suffering of the past years, but it is a moment that's desperately important. And just to see someone like that in court is powerful.

CONAN: Diane Orentlicher, thank you very much for your time.

Prof. ORENTLICHER: You're welcome.

CONAN: Diane Orentlicher serves as deputy in the Office for War Crimes Issues at the U.S. State Department and joined us here in Studio 3A.

Tomorrow, TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be here with a look back at JFK's famous moon speech and the legacy of the Apollo missions. We'll see you again on Monday.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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