Charges are 'monstrous', says defiant Mladic on his first day in court

Former general refuses to enter plea at start of war crimes trial

The hair is greyer and thinner, the girth is wider, and after suffering a stroke during his 16 years on the run, he moves with considerably less ease, but Ratko Mladic, who appeared before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia yesterday, has lost none of the old aggression.

The defiant former Bosnian Serb commander said the charges against him – that he is responsible for the massacre of nearly 8,000 Muslim boys and men in Srebrenica in 1995 – were "obnoxious" and "monstrous". He said that he didn't want "to hear a single word or sentence" from the 37-page indictment that – in short – accuses him of the worst war crimes in Europe since the Second World War.

As the former general tried to vent his anger over the indictment at the court in The Hague, its presiding judge, Alphons Orie, politely cut across him and read a shorter version. Mladic said he hadn't bothered to read any of it. His court-appointed lawyer repeated claims that that his client was suffering from terminal cancer.

In the end, he declared that the list of charges comprised "monstrous words" and he claimed to know nothing of the events described by the judge, "nor can I understand them", he added.

"I killed neither Muslims nor Croats, but did my job," Mladic said. "I defended my people, my country, not Ratko Mladic... Now I am defending myself. I just have to say that I want to live to see that I am a free man."

After Mladic refused to enter a plea, Judge Orie set 4 July as the next date for an appearance before the court. This will provide Mladic with more time to study the indictment and circumstances surrounding the trial. If he refuses to enter a plea next month, the court will enter a not-guilty plea on his behalf. "I need much more than one month to understand the charges," said Mladic. "Be patient with me, I'm a gravely ill man" he added.

Patience with the man they call the "Butcher of the Balkans" was in short supply in the specially converted conference centre, complete with bullet-proof glass, which adjoins the courtroom and has been set aside as a public gallery. It was packed yesterday with the international media and the families of Mladic's alleged victims. Many commented on his changed appearance and expressed concern that, if his lawyer's statement about his health is true, he may not live long enough to face justice. Some shouted abuse at Mladic. "Monster man, butcher," screamed Bakira Hasecic, who heads an organisation for women raped during the conflict.

Dressed in a matching grey suit and shirt, wearing a gold-and-black tie and a cap that was reminiscent of his infamous battlefield uniform, Mladic was brought into the courtroom shortly after 10am. He was flanked by two guards who led him to his seat. Mladic took the cap off only then, exposing his bald head.

The UN guards lifted him to his feet when the judges entered the courtroom, and he saluted them with his left hand. With his right arm apparently impaired, a guard had to help him put earphones over his head to hear the Serbian translation. His speech was slow and slightly slurred. "I don't want to be helped to walk as if I were some blind cripple. If I want help, I'll ask for it," he snapped.

When asked to confirm his name and date of birth, the accused said: "I am General Ratko Mladic" but the date of birth he gave clashed with date on the indictment. Mladic offered a Serbian Orthodox holiday in 1943. The court insists it is a different date, a year later.

"I am General Mladic and the whole world knows who I am," he declared at the end of the hearing, which lasted one hour and 40 minutes. He repeatedly referred to himself as "general", while the court pointedly addressed him as "Mr Mladic." On several occasions he looked into the public gallery, probably trying to find out who the audience was. For a moment he appeared to be waving at someone, and fear rippled through the stands packed with families of those killed in the Srebrenica massacre.

"This is a big day for us," 69-year-old Kada Hotic said after she left the court. Ms Hotic lost her son, husband and two brothers in Srebrenica. "I hope the court will see how serious this crime is and judge in the name of justice and [the] victims." An angry man stood outside the court with a banner which read "Mladic, butcher of Srebrenica", while mothers and widows from Srebrenica talked to reporters. Others carried photos of Mladic with "murderer" stamped across the them.

Munira Subasic, the head of the Mothers of Srebrenica Association, said she had mixed feelings about Mr Mladic's appearance. She lost her son and husband in Srebrenica.

"I'm happy to be here to see, once again, the bloody eyes of the criminal who slaughtered our children in 1995," she said. "And I am sad because many mothers didn't live to see this – mothers who found bones belonging to their children, buried them without heads and hands and the only wish they had was for him to be arrested. But they didn't live to see it."

Despite the anger in The Hague, the fierce loyalty Mladic commanded during the war was undiminished in the former Bosnian Serb stronghold of Pale, in mountains close to Sarajevo.

"He was an honest and dignified officer, who taught us to defend our land and our people," said Novica Kapuran, a decorated Serb war veteran. "He never told us to kill anyone, to slaughter anyone. Even when we captured a Muslim soldier, he used to tell us to hand him over to intelligence services, so this guy could be exchanged."

Who's who in the courtroom

Judge Alphons Orie

One of 15 permanent judges at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), Judge Orie also presided over the opening hearing for the high-profile trial of former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic in 2009. He hails from the Netherlands and first served the tribunal as defence counsel for Dusko Tadic (the first suspect to be tried at the court).

Serge Brammertz

The chief prosecutor of the ICTY was born in Belgium and previously headed the United Nations' investigation into the murder of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri before being elected to his current post in 2008. He has been praised for his determination to bring Mladic to trial.

Aleksandar Aleksic

The prominent Belgrade lawyer is one of many working as a defence attorney at the ICTY in The Hague. Most high-ranking suspects have defended themselves in the past, but Mr Aleksic was appointed by the tribunal to act for Mladic in view of the 69-year-old's poor health.