THE HAGUE (AFP) — Former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic made a combative first appearance Thursday at the UN's war crimes court, waiving his right to defence counsel and claiming he had been kidnapped and that his life was in danger.
Declining to enter a plea immediately, he also claimed to have made a deal with US negotiator Richard Holbrooke at the end of the Bosnian war that involved him withdrawing from the public arena, and said it now put his life at risk.
Dubbed the "Butcher of Bosnia", the 63-year-old was composed and polite throughout his procedural appearance before the International Criminal Court for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), which has indicted him on 11 counts of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Shorn of the beard and long hair used to disguise himself as an alternative healer until his recent arrest after more than a decade on the run, he was again recognisable as the man who became one of the most reviled figures of the 1992-95 war -- though older, thinner and more pale.
Wearing a dark blue jacket and tie, he sat gravely in the dock, waiving his right to a lawyer and stating "I will defend myself as I would defend myself against any natural catastrophe".
Karadzic sought to elaborate on "numerous irregularities" in his capture. Before capitulating to Judge Alphons Orie's insistence that this was not the time or place to raise these issues, Karadzic said he had been "kidnapped" prior to the official date given for his arrest: July 21.
"I was arrested irregularly. For three days I was kidnapped ... I was kept in a place ... my rights were not (read out to) me, I had no right to a telephone."
Serbian government sources told AFP the cabinet would not react to the claims.
Karadzic also claimed a deal with Holbrooke that entailed him (Karadzic) laying low "in return the United States of America would fulfill their commitments".
Claiming "I was in danger of being liquidated because I had made a commitment", Karadzic expressed fears that "Holbrooke's long arm" may extend even into the courtroom.
Florence Hartmann, former spokeswoman and adviser to the previous ICTY prosecutor, Carla del Ponte, told AFP earlier that Holbrooke is widely accused of having promised not to deliver Karadzic to the ICTY in exchange for his exit from the public and political scene.
But Holbrooke, the architect of the Dayton peace agreement that ended Bosnia's bloody war, denied cutting such a deal.
"I negotiated a very tough deal. He had to step down immediately from both his posts as president of the Serb part of Bosnia and as head of his party. And he did so," Holbrooke said in a recorded interview with CNN.
"But when he disappeared, he put out a piece of disinformation that I had cut a deal with him if he disappeared we wouldn't pursue him. That was a completely false statement."
Holbrooke described Karadzic as the "intellectual architect" behind an ideology of racial hatred in former Yugoslavia.
"Of all the evil men of the Balkans, he is the worst."
Agitated at times, Karadzic maintained his composure throughout Thursday's hearing, never raising his voice and speaking only when spoken to.
He opted to delay entering a plea for up to 30 days and to conduct his own defence.
The same tactic was adopted by his one time ally, late Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, whose own ICTY trial dragged on for more than four years and ended with his death in March 2006.
Kada Hotic, who lost her son and husband as Karadzic's Serb troops overran the eastern Bosnian town of Srebrenica, massacring around 8,000 Muslim men and boys, described his appearance in the court in The Hague as "theatre."
"He stole the ground from under our feet and he took the sky from above our heads, he killed our sons," Hotic told AFP after watching the trial on television at the small Sarajevo office of the Mothers of Srebrenica group of victims' families.
"And what we get in return is a theatre performance. The world is looking at this as if it were a spectacle," she added.
Accused over a campaign of "ethnic cleansing", charges against Karadzic include his role in the 44-month siege of Sarajevo that left 10,000 dead, and the July 1995 massacre of around 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the UN-protected safe area of Srebrenica.
If convicted, he faces life imprisonment.
But ICTY chief prosecutor Serge Brammertz warned Wednesday that the trial may not start for months.
The next appearance is on August 29.
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