STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The war crimes trial for a former Bosnian Serb leader ended today. The trial was at The Hague in the Netherlands. The crimes took place in the 1990s during the Bosnian War. Serbian - ethnic Serbian forces murdered more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in a massacre at the town of Srebrenica. The man who commanded those Serbian forces was Ratko Mladic, who was the defendant at trial and just found out his fate. NPR's senior European correspondent Sylvia Poggioli covered the Bosnian War and genocide. She's on the line.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.
INSKEEP: So what's the verdict?
POGGIOLI: Well, Ratko Mladic was sentenced to life in prison for genocide and crimes against humanity. The two main charges were for the 3 1/2-year-long siege of Sarajevo that killed an estimated 14,000 people and for the massacre at Srebrenica in 1995. The judges upheld the prosecution's premise that Mladic was responsible for a campaign of ethnic cleansing aimed at creating a purely monoethnic Serbian state and finding him guilty of various crimes against humanity.
Now, he is said to be in poor health. He was present at the start of the reading, but after a break, the judge ordered him removed after an angry outburst in which Mladic yelled, shame on the court. He insists he's innocent. He followed the rest of the proceedings in another room. And the presiding judge listed several personal details of the tens of thousands of people who were killed and persecuted during the war. There was lots of evidence. For example, there were many video clips of Mladic in Srebrenica giving orders to his troops to separate army-aged men from their families before executing them and dumping their bodies in mass graves all over the region.
INSKEEP: Early moment in the age of video - you said that he said he was innocent. What was the nature of his defense? Did he say, I didn't do it, I wasn't really there or it wasn't really a massacre. What did he say?
POGGIOLI: Oh, it was all over the place. And basically, the Serbs - a theory is that they were under threat from the Bosnian Muslims, and they - was all a question of defending the Serbian nation and their history.
INSKEEP: Sylvia, we noted that you covered this war. Did you ever run across Ratko Mladic?
POGGIOLI: No, I never met him personally. But he had a total disdain of the international media. But I've got a chilling memory of seeing him in action in 1993. The Bosnian Serbs were about to sign a peace plan drawn up by U.S. and British diplomats. The meeting was at their stronghold near Sarajevo.
Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic was there, too, pressing for approval so he could get international sanctions on Serbia lifted. The atmosphere was very tense. Reporters were surrounded by Serb militiamen carrying Kalashnikovs. They were menacing, shoving us around, trying to prevent us from listening to what was happening in the room next to us.
Suddenly, in the middle of the night, Mladic stormed into the assembly room and rolled out giant maps of Bosnia covered with small crosses. And in a fiery speech, the strutting general said, wherever a Serb is buried, that is Serbian land. The peace plan was immediately voted down, prolonging the war more than two years and culminating with the massacre at Srebrenica.
INSKEEP: What was it like to see that storming general you just described, again, couple of decades later in The Hague on trial?
POGGIOLI: It wasn't very moving. I can't say that it was. He didn't look that sick to me today when he was sitting there. But he still had a lot of the arrogance I remember seeing on the war field.
INSKEEP: Sylvia, thank you very much, really appreciate it.
POGGIOLI: Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reporting today on a guilty verdict in a war crimes trial for Ratko Mladic, who was a Serbian leader in the war in Bosnia in the 1990s.
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