Ex-Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic opens defence, says he tried to stop slaughter
THE HAGUE, Netherlands – Former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic cast himself as a “mild man, a tolerant man” as he opened his defence Tuesday in his long-running genocide trial, claiming he tried to prevent fighting and then worked to reduce casualties in the bloody 1992-95 Bosnian war.
His claims brought snorts of derision and cries of “He’s lying! He’s lying!” from some Muslim survivors of the war who were watching the trial from the public gallery at the U.N. tribunal.
Karadzic, who faces charges including genocide and crimes against humanity, was given 90 minutes to make a statement on his role in the war that left an estimated 100,000 dead. The statement was not made under oath, meaning Karadzic could not be cross-examined by prosecutors.
In another of the tribunal’s courtrooms, Goran Hadzic, a former leader of rebel Serbs in Croatia, became the last of the tribunal’s 161 indicted suspects to face justice as his trial got under way. He was arrested last year in northern Serbia after more than seven years on the run and pleaded not guilty to charges of murdering hundreds of Croats and expelling tens of thousands more.
Karadzic, a former psychologist and poet, told judges he was a “physician and literary man” who was a reluctant player in the violent breakup of Yugoslavia. He said before the war many of his friends, including his hairdresser, were Muslims.
“Instead of being accused of the events in our war, I should be rewarded for all the good things I have done,” he said through a court interpreter. “I did everything humanly possible to avoid the war. … I succeeded in reducing the suffering of all civilians.”
Prosecutors have painted a starkly different picture of Karadzic during months of witness testimony, portraying him as a political leader who masterminded Serb atrocities throughout the war, from campaigns of persecution and murder of Muslims and Croats early in 1992 to the conflict’s bloody climax, the 1995 massacre of some 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the U.N.-protected Srebrenica enclave.
Karadzic, 67, who looked relaxed and cheerful in court as he read his statement from a text, denied that prosecution portrait of him.
“Everybody who knows me knows I am not an autocrat, I am not aggressive, I am not intolerant,” he told judges. “On the contrary, I am a mild man, a tolerant man with great capacity to understand others.”
He also said some of the worst atrocities of the war, including two deadly shelling attacks on a Sarajevo marketplace in 1994 and 1995, were “orchestrated” to turn public opinion against Serbs.
Karadzic said Sarajevo was his adopted home and that “every shell that fell on Sarajevo hurt me personally.”
He called the first marketplace shelling a “shameless orchestration.”
“Obviously some people got killed by that explosion but we also saw mannequins being thrown onto trucks creating this show for the world.”
The first defence witness Karadzic called, retired Russian Col. Andrey Demurenko, who investigated the second attack, also cast doubt on who fired the deadly mortars into crowds of shoppers.
Demurenko told judges it was almost impossible to accurately fire a mortar into such a small marketplace.
“The chance that a mortar shell would hit such a small street … is one in a million,” he said.
A previous trial at which Demurenko testified for the defence concluded that Serb forces fired the mortar in the 1995 marketplace attack and convicted a Serb officer of responsibility. The officer, Dragomir Milosevic, was later acquitted of that attack on appeal because he was not in Sarajevo at the time of the shelling, but the appeals judges did not overturn the ruling that Serb forces fired the mortar.
Karadzic boycotted the start of his trial in October 2009 saying he had not been given enough time to prepare. The first witness did not testify until April 2010 and prosecutors rested their case on May 25 this year.
Just over a month later, judges acquitted Karadzic of one count of genocide, saying prosecutors had not presented enough evidence to establish that a campaign of murder and persecution early in the Bosnian War amounted to genocide. Prosecutors have appealed the acquittal.
Karadzic still faces 10 more charges, including one genocide count relating to the Srebrenica massacre.
His wartime military chief, Gen. Ratko Mladic, is also on trial in The Hague, facing the same charges. Both men face a maximum sentence of life imprisonment if convicted.
But Karadzic insisted Muslims and Croats were to blame for the conflict in Bosnia.
“It is a terrible misconception and great injustice, this portrayal of the Serbs as the ones who started the war,” he said.
In Bosnia, reaction to Karadzic’s statement Tuesday divided sharply along ethnic lines.
In the Serb-controlled Lukavica neighbourhood of Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, Serbs accused the U.N. tribunal of bias.
“There will not be justice. Serbs never see justice. Everyone gets a fair trial, except Serbs,” said Miljka Smiljanic.
Just a few streets away in the part of Sarajevo that falls under the Bosniak-Croat Federation and came under heavy attack from Karadzic’s forces during the war, people want the court to hand down a punishment that would fit Karadzic’s alleged crimes, if he is convicted.
“I expect a severe punishment. The hardest one. This is what all people who survived the war here expect,” said Haris Vejzalbegovic.
In the Hadzic case, prosecutor Douglas Stringer said Hadzic’s alleged crimes helped to coin a chilling new phrase during the Balkan wars.
“The creation of ethnically pure territories in regions that for generations have been ethnically mixed is accomplished through conflict, persecution and violence – what we now generically call ‘ethnic cleansing,'” he said, adding that the phrase didn’t exist “when the first waves of crime and expulsion drove thousands from their home and villages throughout eastern Croatia.”
Associated Press videographers Eldar Emric and Radul Radovanovic contributed from Sarajevo