THE HAGUE (Reuters) - Wartime Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic took the stand at his war crimes trial on Monday to reject responsibility for some of Europe’s worst atrocities since World War Two.
Karadzic, 64, denies the 11 charges against him, including two of genocide, for his actions during the Bosnian War of 1992-95, which pitted Serbs against Muslims and Croats.
Prosecutors say Karadzic led a genocidal campaign to make Bosnian Muslims “disappear from the face of the earth” and carve out a mono-ethnic state for Bosnian Serbs during a war that killed an estimated 100,000 people.
“Everything that Serbs did is being treated as a crime,” Karadzic said, arguing in his opening statement that conflicts resulting from the break-up of Yugoslavia were a natural consequence of the three groups fighting for land.
“Yugoslavia could only be broken up in war,” he said.
He accused Bosnian Muslims of rejecting power-sharing proposals in order to create an Islamic fundamentalist state, describing his fight against them as “just and holy”.
Karadzic, who boycotted the start of the trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia last October, is defending himself and faces life in prison if convicted.
He appeared in a dark suit, with his familiar shock of tousled white hair, and spoke in Serbian as his comments were translated by a court interpreter.
Often referring to himself in the third person as “Karadzic” as he read from a prepared statement, he also used video clips, audio recordings and quotes to back up his assertions.
Karadzic will have two days to deliver his opening statement, followed by the start of the prosecution’s case.
A key incident that prosecutors are expected to focus on is the killing of more than 7,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in the village of Srebrenica in July 1995, where they accuse Karadzic of orchestrating one of “humanity’s darkest chapters”.
They also accuse him of responsibility for the 43-month siege of Sarajevo, in which some 10,000 people died.
Survivors showed up in The Hague on Monday to press for justice.
“We are here today to tell the whole world that victims are still alive and we are waiting for the truth and for justice,” said Melina Hadziselimovic of the Mothers of Srebrenica.
Sitting behind Karadzic in the courtroom was London barrister Richard Harvey, appointed by the court to represent Karadzic last November, when he was boycotting the trial.
Mindful of the way that the late former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic was able to drag out his war crimes trial at the Hague, the court has told Karadzic that Harvey will take over as his lawyer if he boycotts or obstructs proceedings.
A psychiatrist before becoming president of the self-proclaimed Republika Srpska, Karadzic stepped down in 1996 and went into hiding. He was captured in 2008 in Belgrade, bearded and working as an alternative healer.