The former VRS Main Staff commander opened his defense case by contesting the allegations of artillery and sniper terror campaign against Sarajevo. Mile Sladoje, his first witness, contends that his battalion received a ‘standing order’ to ‘return’ fire when his soldiers were targeted by fire from the city, but only if the ‘targets were visible’. In the cross-examination, the witness said that in his view there was no conflict between the ‘standing order’ and the order he received in July 1995 to ‘return’ fire on Sarajevo because the VRS had run into trouble in the Trnovo battlefield and in the Gorazde area

Mile Sladoje, defence witness at Rako Mladic trialMile Sladoje, defence witness at Rako Mladic trial

Ratko Mladic’s defense case opened today with the evidence of Mile Sladoje, deputy commander of the Nedzarici Battalion, which was part of the Sarajevo-Romanija Corps. According to the witness’s written statement, during the war the battalion operated in line with a ‘standing order to open fire only in response to the enemy fire and only at identified targets’. In Nedzarici, the Serb forces acted ‘defensively’, the witness said, arguing that he never received or issued any orders to open fire on civilians.

Sladoje denied that the Serb forces in Nedzarici were responsible for the artillery incident listed in the indictment, in which, as alleged, six children were killed and five were injured in Alipasino Polje on 22 January 1994. In the written statement and in his replies to the prosecution Sladoje said that the shell had been fired at Alipasino Polje from the Stigma building, which was located in the area under the BH Army control. In the cross-examination, the witness corrected himself explaining that it was only his assumption based on the information from the media.

Responding to prosecutor Dermot Groome Sladoje said that he ‘absolutely’ agreed with the claim that the shelling of children was a crime. Sladoje confirmed that there was no military justification for the shelling because there were no military facilities in that area. The shelling of children at play was an act that horrified every normal man, Sladoje said. Nevertheless, in Sladoje’s view, it was not ‘an act of terror’, at least not in the sense that the prosecution tried to paint it.

Sladoje also claimed that the Serb forces didn’t have a sniper nest in the Home for the Blind. In June 1994, 16-year old Sanela Muratovic was injured by a shot fired from that location. Sladoje had doubts that the incident had actually happened: the girl may have been hit by a ‘stray bullet’. The witness was then shown a photo which indicates that the spot where the girl was shot was clearly visible from the Home for the Blind. Sladoje agreed with the prosecutor’s suggestion that the shooter didn’t need a sniper to hit the victim, adding that in fact he personally didn’t know anything about the incident.

As Sladoje insisted on the ‘standing order’ which instructed his soldiers to ‘return the fire from the city’, but only if the ‘targets were visible’, the prosecutor was prompted to ask him if he ever received an order to open fire on Sarajevo just because ‘something else was happening elsewhere’. When the witness replied that he had never received such an order, the prosecutor confronted him with the order issued by the VRS Sarajevo-Romanija Corps commander of 21 July 1995. In the order the brigade commands were ordered to ‘independently plan, prepare and implement attacks or show of strength attacks on Sarajevo’, in order to support the Serb forces that had run into trouble in the Trnovo battlefield and around Gorazde.

In Sladoje’s opinion, this order didn’t contradict the ‘standing order’ to ‘return fire at visible targets’. Sladoje referred to the military doctrines of warfare and the tactical transfer of operations to other areas. Asked how many shells were fired on the city in line with that order, Sladoje replied with a counter-question, ‘Who says any shells were fired at all?’ The prosecutor didn’t press the issue, saying that he would clarify it through other Mladic’s witnesses.

At the beginning of the hearing today, Mladic first saluted the judges, then bowed to them with his hands crossed over the chest. Although the judges warned Mladic not to do that, Mladic used every opportunity to salute the witness. The witness saluted him back. The judges then cautioned the defense counsels to warn the defense witnesses not to show their friendship and support of the accused with their behavior.