1 Aug 2008

Karadzic tells UN court he feared for life

10:17 pm on 1 August 2008

Former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic appeared before a United Nations war crimes judge in the Netherlands for the first time on Thursday to answer genocide charges, saying he he had been kidnapped and feared for his life.

Mr Karadzic, arrested last week after 11 years on the run, wore a dark suit and tie. He appeared gaunt, his shock of hair whiter and shorter than when he was last seen in public out of disguise more than a decade ago.

Sitting in the seat once occupied by former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, Mr Karadzic, 63, began in composed mood, giving one-word answers and occasionally cracking a joke. Asked whether his family knew of his whereabouts he said: "I do not believe there is anyone who doesn't know that I am in detention."

He became animated and defiant during proceedings in the Hague that lasted just over an hour, forcing Judge Alphons Orie to interrupt him, indicating he may put up a forceful display in his trial.

Mr Karadzic faces two charges of genocide over the 43-month siege of Sarajevo and the 1995 massacre of 8,000 Muslims at Srebrenica, the worst atrocity in Europe since the Second World War.

He is also charged with the persecution and deportation of thousands of non-Serbs, in a wave of ethnic cleansing, and setting up camps where, according to the indictment, "detainees subsisted in an atmosphere of constant terror."

Mr Karadzic, who spoke in Serbian, said he would enter a plea after studying the charges and a revised indictment prosecutors are preparing. The case is due to resume on 29 August.

The leader of the Bosnian Serbs during the 1992-95 Bosnia war is the most prominent Balkan war crimes suspect arrested since Milosevic, who died in detention in 2006 while on trial. Like Milosevic, he said he wanted to handle his own defence rather than use a lawyer, a move that could extend the trial.

Arrest illegal, says Karadzic

In an outburst Mr Karadzic said his arrest was illegal. "In Belgrade I was arrested irregularly, for three days I was kidnapped … my rights were not told me. I had no right to a telephone call or even an SMS (text message)," he said.

He attacked former United States peace mediator Richard Holbrooke, saying: "If Holbrooke still wants my death and regrets there is no death sentence at this court, I want to know if his arm is long enough to reach me here."

When Mr Holbrooke was asked about Mr Karadzic's comments he laughed, saying Mr Karadzic appeared to have misremembered a comment he had once made.

"What I said was that I know that the Hague does not have a death penalty, but if anybody deserves the death penalty, it's Radovan Karadzic because he was responsible, directly or indirectly, for 300,000 deaths," Mr Holbrooke told Reuters.

"So if he is still afraid of me while he is in a well-padded cell in the Hague, I guess that's an indirect compliment in a way," added Mr Holbrooke, who was the architect of the deal that ended the Bosnian war.

Mr Karadzic said he would have surrendered to the court a decade ago had he not feared for his life.

HIs delivery to the Hague was crucial to Serbia securing closer ties with the European Union. His arrest was seen as a pro-Western move by the new government in Belgrade.