THE HAGUE - Former Bosnian Serb army commander Ratko Mladic faced the U.N. war crimes tribunal on Friday as a proud general who never lost a battle, declining to plead guilty and calling charges against him "monstrous".
He began his first appearance before the court wearing a military forage cap and offering a brief salute. As expected he declined to enter a plea immediately and the court set a date of July 4 for his next hearing.
Mladic told Judge Alphons Orie he was gravely ill and "in a poor state" and did not want to hear "a single letter or word of that indictment" read out to him.
He shook his head in denial as Orie, reading a summary, described the slaughter of 8,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica in July 1995 of which he is accused.
Once a burly and intimidating figure on the battlefield, Mladic appeared older than his 69 years. His mouth seemed to droop slightly at one corner and his words were slightly slurred, the possible result of a stroke.
Mladic is also charged with crimes against humanity for the 43-month siege of Sarajevo from 1992 to 1995 in which some 12,000 people were killed.
Orie cited a charge that Bosnian Serb forces carried out a sustained campaign of "sniping and shelling to kill, maim, wound and terrorize" the people of the Bosnian capital.
Mladic, dressed in a gray striped suit with a gray shirt and sober black checked tie, frequently wiped his cheeks, stroked his chin and placed his hand on his forehead, listening intently to the judge, occasionally nodding or shaking his finger.
MOTHERS OF SREBRENICA
Mladic was arrested last week in a Serbian village and extradited by Serbia on Tuesday, to become the tribunal's biggest case. His capture came nearly 16 years after The Hague issued its indictment against him.
A career soldier, he 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.
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.
Several relatives of victims watched him in court, the culmination of years of waiting for him to be brought to justice.
"I came here today to see if his eyes are still bloody," said Munira Subasic, whose 18-year-old son and husband were both killed by Serb forces in Srebrenica.
"In 1995 I begged him to let my son go. He listened to me and promised to let him go. I trusted him at that moment. Sixteen years later, I am still searching for my son's bones."
"Mladic didn't look like a cold-blooded murderer when I spoke to him at the time," said Subasic.
The International Tribunal for former Yugoslavia, 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.
The court has also been criticised for the slowness of its trials which can take up to four years.
"That is the bigger concern -- whether they will finish this process," said lawyer Axel Hagedorn who represents the Mothers of Srebrenica in a lawsuit against the Dutch state.
For most of his years at large, Mladic managed to live discreetly and 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, his network of support dwindled and he was captured alone.
© 2017 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.