After spending his first night in jail at the UN war crimes tribunal detention centre in The Hague, Radovan Karadzic (photo, from bbc.co.uk), the 63-year-old former Bosnian Serb leader, has made his first appearance at the UN war crimes tribunal on Thursday.
His arrest ended 11 years on the run and has been indicted on 11 counts of war crimes, in connection with the 1990s Bosnia conflict, including two charges of genocide over the 43-month siege of Sarajevo and the 1995 massacre of some 8,000 Muslims at Srebrenica, the worst atrocity in Europe since the second world war.
Mr Karadzic said he would be conducting his own defence, and that he would like more time, in order to study the charges against him, before entering a plea. To decide how to plead, under court rules he is allowed 30 days. If he refuses to enter a plea then, a plea of “not guilty” is entered for him.
During Thursday’s hearing, Mr Karadzic affirmed that he had made a deal with Richard Holbrooke, the US architect of the July 1996 Dayton peace accord, at the end of the 1992-95 Bosnian war. According to the former Bosnian Serb leader, the deal involved his withdrawal from public life, in return for immunity from prosecution.
Mr Karadzic said it was agreed that he would lie low and that “in return the United States of America would fulfil their commitments”, though he did not say what these were.
On Thursday, Mr Holbrooke denied that he had entered into a deal with Karadzic. He said that “in June of 1996 I went to Belgrade and negotiated an agreement with Milosevic and two of Karadzic’s henchmen that he would quit as president of the Serb portion of Bosnia, and as head of his political party, immediately and disappear from public life”.
“He reluctantly signed that agreement without ever coming to the negotiations, but then in order to protect himself, he put out this false story.”
The US had “from the first days of this administration been very consistent in urging the Serbian government to turn over Karadzic as well as others that are wanted to the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague”, said Sean McCormack, the state department spokesman in Washington.
‘Spin his responsibility’
Claiming irregularities in his capture, Mr Karadzic also contested the date of his arrest, though he said he had no complaints concerning his treatment at The Hague.
The court would meet on August 29, said Alphons Orie, the presiding judge, after Thursday’s proceedings.
Alan Fisher, Al Jazeera’s correspondent in Belgrade, the Serbian capital, listened to the broadcast of the trial in a bar frequented by Karadzic supporters.
“People listened intently to what was said. One man who served as a Serbian soldier was in tears and said the process should be scrapped. They revere him as a leader of Bosnian Serbs and as a protector”, said Alan Fisher, Al Jazeera’s correspondent in Belgrade, the Serbian capital, who listened to the broadcast of the trial in a bar frequented by Karadzic supporters.
A Bosnian journalist, speaking to Al Jazeera, said : “The beginning of the trial shows he is trying to spin his responsibility about what happened in the war.”
“I would like to see justice. … I am very glad to see Karadzic in the dock. I think he will have a fair trial. I don’t feel any sympathy about Karadzic. Hopefully it won’t last as long as the Milosevic trial.”
“This is the day everyone connected with the international tribunal has been waiting for”, said Al Jazeera’s Harry Smith, reporting from The Hague earlier. He added that “it is the day many victims of the crimes in the former Yugoslavia have been waiting for …”
“The prosecutors are very eager to try and avoid that sort of disruption. Quite what they intend to do we don’t know. But they say they have learnt a lot from the case of Milosevic.”
After using them as a disguise, when he pretended to be an alternative healer in the years following the war, Mr Karadzic has been shorn of the beard and the long hair, since his arrest in Belgrade, last week.
And on Wednesday morning, he was flown to the Netherlands.
The tribunal’s proceedings could be protracted if Mr Karadzic, like Slobodan Milosevic, the former Serbian president did, does decide to defend himself.
Serge Brammertz, the chief prosecutor, has said that for his part, learning from the Milosevic case, he will conduct the trial efficiently.
“Of course it will take some months before the prosecution and defence will be ready to start. It will be a complex trial but we are fully aware of the importance of being efficient”, he said on Wednesday.
Mr Brammertz also called the arrest a “major achievement”.
Mr Karadzic believes he will be cleared of genocide, said his lawyer in Belgrade. And earlier this week, his relatives said that he was in good spirits and preparing his defence.
Mr Karadzic’s arrest was seen as a pro-Western signal by the new government, sworn in this month in Serbia, and his delivery to The Hague was key to the country securing closer ties with the European Union.