For years following his 1995 indictment for war crimes, Ratko Mladic continued to appear regularly at soccer games and at high-end restaurants and cafes.
Last Tuesday, the former Serbian military commander was placed in a cell at Scheveningen Prison at The Hague. The following day, in Egypt, a trial date was announced for ex-president Hosni Mubarak. These two events are a sign that justice is at last catching up with some of the strongmen and bullies who have long made an art of avoiding it.
During the presidency of the notorious Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, Mladic led the ethnic Bosnian Serb army in its brutal campaign against non-Serbs. The war, which lasted from 1992 to 1995, left more than 100,000 people dead; another 1.8 million were driven from their homes. In 1995, in one of the most atrocious acts of the war — and of the second half of the century — Mladic orchestrated the massacre of around 8,000 Muslim boys and men in the United Nations “safe haven” of Srebrenica.
Mladic is one of the last of the genocide’s leaders to be brought to justice. Of the 161 individuals indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, there is now only one, Goran Hadzic, who has not been apprehended. Milosevic died in March 2006, five years into his own war crimes trial, and Mladic has joined the former Serb political leader, Radovan Karadzic, at The Hague. Prosecutors tailored the charges against Mladic to mirror those against Karadzic so the two men can stand trial together.
Mladic’s arrest was the result of a concerted effort on the part of Serbian police. The country offered a €10 million award for information leading to his arrest, and devoted significant resources to police operations. He was finally found living with relatives in the village of Lazarevo, north of Belgrade. Police simultaneously raided four houses in the village, including the one where Mladic was taking an early morning walk in the garden.
For Serbia, finding and turning over Mladic was critical to gaining acceptance in the European community. The European Union decided in 2010 that, for Serbia’s membership bid to progress, all EU members would have to agree that Serbia was cooperating fully with the International Criminal Tribunal to track down war criminals, including Mladic. The tribunal’s chief prosecutor, Serge Brammertz, proved a tough critic, and was in a strong position to argue against Serbia’s entrance into the EU. In January 2010, he told the European Parliament, “The last thing I want to give is the impression that everything is fine.” Capturing Mladic allowed Serbia to prove itself to EU members.
Mladic’s capture, however, depended as much on public interest in justice as on official action. As the government sought to show off its democratic credentials, individuals also changed their attitudes and behavior. In the past, Mladic appeared flanked by guards. In the same 2010 statement, Brammertz said he believed that sympathizers were hiding Mladic. But at the time of his capture, Mladic appeared to be receiving little assistance from supporters, instead making money as a construction worker.
While some Serbians have protested in support of Mladic following his arrest, enough were unwilling to protect him that it was no longer possible for him to evade authorities. A taxi driver in Belgrade told MSNBC News that he was glad Mladic had been captured, since it would allow the country to gain international acceptance and move forward. “The whole nation of eight million was being held behind because of the fate of one man, that is not right,” he said. “Mladic should have given himself up long ago so we did not suffer this fate.”
Mubarak’s trial also represents a triumph of democracy. Mubarak will face charges of “intentional murder, attempted murder of demonstrators, abuse of power to intentionally waste public funds and unlawfully profiting from public funds.” His trial is instrumental in relieving tensions between the military and the public. According to The Wall Street Journal, Mubarak will be the first Arab head of state to be tried after being overthrown by his own people.
Over the past few years, several other violent and corrupt international leaders have been similarly brought to justice. At the end of last year, Jorge Videla, the Argentine dictator who led that country during its “dirty war,” was sentenced to life in prison. Under his rule, around 30,000 people were “disappeared.” He was originally convicted in 1985, but the sentence was lifted five years later by then-president Carlos Menem.
Last summer, a French court convicted former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega on charges of money laundering. Noriega had already served 20 years in the U.S. for drug trafficking and racketeering in addition to money laundering, and now faces a possible extradition to Panama to serve a maximum of 20 additional years there.
The most famous case involving a Latin American dictator, of course, is that of Augusto Pinochet. The Chilean dictator was first arrested in London in 1998, when he still held considerable influence in Chile, prompting an international battle over the immunity of former heads of state. Though he was released at that time due to poor health, he was eventually charged in Chile and died in 2006, shortly after being placed under house arrest for the fifth time as a mountain of charges were pending.
And of course, that same year, former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was executed after his own country found him guilty in the killings of 148 people in the northern Iraqi city of Dujail in 1982.
For the families of those who died at these men’s command, justice has come too late. While slow but steady justice may not be ideal, it is better than no justice at all.