Caught by wiretap, Karadzic boasting about genocide plans

Prosecution opens its case against former Bosnian Serb leader who continues to boycott court

Painting him as "the supreme commander" and "hands-on leader", prosecutors yesterday opened their war-crimes case against Radovan Karadzic and dramatically revealed the existence of wiretaps which could see the former Bosnian Serb leader incriminated by his own voice.

The scene at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia was surreal, the left-hand side of the chamber a sea of empty chairs after the defendant again chose to boycott the trial. However, unlike the previous day – when the judge had halted proceedings after just 20 minutes, to the fury of victims who had made the long trek to The Hague – the case began.

Prosecutor Alan Tieger said he would prove that Mr Karadzic had "harnessed the forces of nationalism, hatred and fear to pursue his vision of an ethnically segregated Bosnia", and directed them "in a campaign to carve out a mono-ethnic state within his multi-ethnic country".

Testimony would come from international observers, Bosnian insiders and survivors of the 1992-95 war, who would describe living "in constant fear, day after day, for years, knowing that they or their loved ones were targets".

But some of the most intriguing evidence looks likely to come from Mr Karadzic himself, in the form of intercepted and covertly recorded calls and transcripts of his political speeches. In one wiretap from October 1991, Mr Tieger told the court, Mr Karadzic bragged about what "was coming for Sarajevo".

"Sarajevo will be a black cauldron where Muslims will die," Mr Karadzic was quoted as saying on the wiretap. "They will disappear, that people will disappear from the face of the earth."

He said he had as many as 400,000 Serbs under arms awaiting his orders and 20,000 men ready to besiege Sarajevo. Six months later the shelling campaign against the Bosnia capital began. The siege would continue for 44 months, killing around 10,000 people.

Mr Tieger said evidence would also show the scale of the Bosnian Serb leader's contempt for the international community. "Europe will be told to go fuck itself and not come back till the job is finished," he quoted Mr Karadzic as saying.

Dozens of survivors crowded into the courtroom to hear the prosecution outline the horrifying events of Europe's worst conflict since the Second World War. After an initial flurry of whispers, they listened mostly in silence. But outside the chamber, some were more vocal, expressing their disappointment that Mr Karadzic had been allowed to have his own way and snub proceedings.

"Again, it is Karadzic who is dictating what happens," Esnaf Moujic told the Associated Press. "He decided in 1992 and again now." The 42-year-old fled the Bosnian town of Bratunac in April 1992 with his wife and child and now lives in the Netherlands. "It is shocking to come here," he said. "You relive the images of how it was back in 1992."

There was more anguish for survivors as news arrived that Biljana Plavsic, the woman who took over from Karadzic, had walked free from a Swedish prison after serving only two-thirds of her sentence for war crimes. The 79-year-old, known as Bosnia's "Iron Lady", returned to Belgrade, blowing kisses to the crowd as her former mentor's trial unfolded.

Back at The Hague, Judge O-Gon Kwon, who has first-hand experience of delay-tactics from the Slobodan Milosevic trial, said he regretted Mr Karadzic's no-show. "He has chosen that course and must therefore accept the consequences that inevitably flow from that choice," the South Korean judge told the court, adding that the defendant risked having counsel assigned to him and being tried in absentia.

Mr Karadzic, 64, was on the run for more than a decade, disguised as a healer who went by the name of Dr Dabic, until he was arrested last year. He denies all 11 counts against him, which include one count of genocide for the 1995 murder of more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica, and a second count for the Bosnian Serb campaign of ethnic cleansing against the country's Muslim and Croat populations.

He has adopted the Milosevic tactic of defending himself, and says he needs more time to prepare his case. "If we get enough time to prepare a proper defence, he will appear in court, definitely," Marko Sladojevic, one of Karadzic's legal advisers, told Reuters.

The former Bosnian Serb leader is being sent a copy of the transcript and the audio of each day's court proceedings and is reported to be following the trial closely from his cell in what has been called "The Hague Hilton".

He faces life in jail if convicted at the end of the trial, which is expected to last two years at the very least.

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