Friday, 3 June 2011

Mladic makes first court appearance

Former army commander has faced judges at UN tribunal in The Hague for genocide charges in Bosnia war.
Mladic said he needed more time to understand the charges during his court appearance on Friday [Reuters]

Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb military chief, has told a United Nations war crimes court he is "a gravely ill man" and refused to enter pleas to charges alleging he orchestrated the worst atrocities of the Yugoslav civil.

Mladic, 69, faces the special court's gravest charge, that of genocide for the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of 8,000 Muslim males and for the 43-month siege of the city of Sarajevo from 1992 to 1995 in which up to 12,000 were killed.

Asked by Alphons Orie, the presiding judge, on Friday if he understood his rights as a suspect at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, Netherlands, Mladic said he needed more time to understand the charges.

He gruffly told Orie he did not want "a single letter or sentence" of his indictment read in court and when asked if he wanted to enter pleas, replied that he did not want to respond to the "obnoxious charges" and "monstrous words".

He shook his head as the charges were read aloud to him. The court hearing went into private session so that Mladic could tell judges about his state of health.

Next appearance

Orie set July 4 as the date for Mladic's next appearance, by when he will be required to enter pleas on the 11 charges against him. Failing to do so, an automatic not-guilty plea will be entered on his behalf.

Mladic was arrested on 26 May in a Serbian village and extradited by Serbia on Tuesday, to become the tribunal's biggest case.

Al Jazeera's Jacky Rowland reports from The Hague

His capture came nearly 16 years after The Hague court issued its indictment against him.

A career soldier, Mladic was branded "the butcher of the Balkans" in the late 1990s for a ruthless campaign to seize and "ethnically cleanse" territory for Serbs following the break-up of the Serb-dominated Yugoslav federation of six republics.

Many Serb nationalists believe Mladic defended the nation and did no worse than Croat or Bosnian Muslim army commanders, as the federation was torn apart in five years of conflict that claimed some 130,000 lives, destroying towns and villages.

Serge Brammertz, the Hague chief prosecutor, said Mladic had used his power to commit brutal atrocities and must answer for it.

The ICTY, set up in 1993, expects to wind up its work by 2014. It has issued 161 indictments and has now accounted for all but one fugitive.

Serbs say the fact that two-thirds of them were Serbian is proof of the court's bias. Hague prosecutors say it is a reflection of which side carried out the biggest war crimes.

Hospital bed

Mladic was spending the night in a prison hospital bed under medical supervision, his lawyer in The Hague said.

"He has not had proper healthcare for years and his condition is not good," said Aleksandar Aleksic, a prominent Belgrade lawyer appointed by the tribunal on Thursday to represent Mladic.

The tribunal said medical supervision for a newly arrived detainee was normal routine and in no way implied that Mladic might not make his scheduled appearance in court.

As reported in Serbian media following his capture, Mladic has partially lost the use of one hand due to a stroke suffered years ago.

But Aleksic confirmed the description given by tribunal officials and diplomats who met the general on his arrival, of a man who appears frail but mentally capable and responsive, and was co-operative and talkative.

He has a room to himself with a small outdoor yard where he can walk and has been making phone calls to his family, he said.

"I am going to ask tomorrow that he be given additional medical tests," Aleksic told Reuters news agency.

Mladic will have an opportunity at his initial hearing to talk in public about his health and about conditions in detention, the lawyer said.

Serbian media reports say Mladic is unlikely to enter a plea on Friday. Under the rules of the war crimes tribunal, he can defer that step for 30 days, a court spokeswoman confirmed.

Loyal supporters

For most of his years at large, Mladic managed to live discreetly but safely in Belgrade, relying on loyal supporters who consider him a war hero, not a war criminal.

But as pressure mounted on Serbia to arrest and extradite him, or watch its bid for European Union membership wither, Mladic's network of support apparently dwindled and he was forced to go even deeper underground to avoid capture.

A Belgrade-based lawyer who failed to prevent the general's extradition on grounds of ill health said on Thursday that Mladic was treated for cancer in 2009.

Both Snezana Malovic, the Serb justice minister, and Bruno Vekaric, the Serbian deputy war crimes prosecutor, dismissed the claim.

A tribunal spokeswoman said the court does not comment on the health of defendants, unless they expressly raise the issue.

Al Jazeera and agencies