Purse-lipped and gaunt, Radovan Karadzic appeared before a U.N. war crimes tribunal for the first time Thursday and vowed to defend himself against genocide and other charges “as I would defend myself against any natural catastrophe.”
In remarks cut short by the judge, the former Bosnian Serb leader suggested he would try to expose alleged double-dealing by the West, particularly the U.S., in the wake of the 1992-95 Bosnian war. That could presage the kind of political grandstanding that former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, who also represented himself, used to sidetrack his prosecution before he died in his cell at the tribunal's detention center.
Except for two guards who flanked him, Karadzic's side of the court was empty. “I have an invisible adviser, but I have decided to represent myself,” said Karadzic, 63.
Shorn of the beard and long hair that helped disguise him as an alternative health guru in Belgrade, Serbia's capital, Karadzic listened mostly impassively as Judge Alphons Orie read a summary of the indictment. Karadzic's trademark shock of hair, swept back from his forehead, was restored by a haircut before his extradition, but he has visibly aged since going on the run in 1997.
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The former president of the Bosnian Serb republic and supreme commander of Bosnian Serb forces faces two counts of genocide arising from the siege of Sarajevo and the 1995 massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the town of Srebrenica, the single worst atrocity in Europe since the end of World War II. Karadzic faces other charges, including crimes against humanity and murder, ethnic cleansing and creating prison camps where Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats were killed, sexually assaulted and brutalized.
Karadzic declined to enter a plea during the 70-minute hearing, exercising his right not to do so for 30 days. He answered simple questions, sometimes with a flash of humor. Asked whether his family knew where he was, Karadzic said, “I do not believe there is anyone who doesn't know that I am in detention.”
Karadzic was prevented from reading in full a four-page statement he had prepared, but he managed to tell the court he had wanted to appear before the tribunal soon after his 1995 indictment. He suggested a deal was cut with U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke, who negotiated the Dayton peace agreement ending the war in Bosnia, that Karadzic wouldn't be sent to The Hague if he didn't endanger the accord.
“My commitment was to withdraw … even from literary life and all sorts of public life,” said Karadzic, a trained psychiatrist and a poet. In return, he said, “the United States of America would fulfill its commitments.”
Holbrooke dismissed the allegation.
“It's an old story by one of the worst mass murderers in the world, and it's completely untrue,” he said by phone. “There was no deal. It would have been immoral, illegal and disgraceful.”