The wartime Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, defending himself against charges of Europe's worst genocide since the Holocaust, told judges yesterday he was not the barbarian depicted by UN prosecutors, but was protecting his people against a fundamentalist Muslim plot.
During a four-hour opening defence statement at the UN war crimes tribunal, Mr Karadzic barely referred to allegations of mass murder at Srebrenica, indiscriminate shelling of Sarajevo, the destruction of Bosnian Muslim and Croat villages or the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people during the 1992-95 war in Bosnia.
But he took personal responsibility for Serb actions, as Yugoslavia dissolved and the region descended into a war in which some 100,000 were killed, saying he was standing up for ethnic Serbs against Muslim Bosnians.
"I don't want to defend myself by saying that I wasn't important or that I didn't occupy an important post while I was serving my people. Nor will I shift the blame to someone else," he said. "I will defend that nation of ours and their cause, which is just and holy."
He claimed that Bosnia's Serbs were under threat and physical attack by Muslims, led by the former Bosnian president Alija Izetbegovic, who rejected power-sharing proposals and wanted an Islamic republic in Bosnia.
The Serbs "wanted to live with Muslims, but not under Muslims," he said.
The image of the Muslims as victims was untrue, he said. The prosecution "is trying to make me out to be a barbarian attacking a friendly neighbour". The Muslims were the first to attack and their fighters "had blood up to their shoulders," he said. "Their conduct gave rise to our conduct."
Mr Karadzic, 64, spoke forcefully, seldom glancing at notes, peering at the judges over the rim of his glasses or whipping them off to underscore a point. Alone at the defendant's table, he looked more like the confident politician who delivered wartime speeches and negotiated with peace envoys than the gaunt figure extradited in 2008 after 13 years as a fugitive.
Mr Karadzic faces two counts of genocide and nine other counts of murder, extermination, persecution, forced deportation and the seizing of hostages. He faces possible life imprisonment if convicted.
Prosecutors say he orchestrated a campaign to destroy the Muslim and Croat communities in eastern Bosnia to create an ethnically pure Serbian state. The campaign included the 44-month siege of the capital, Sarajevo, and the torture and murder of hundreds of prisoners in detention camps. Violence culminated in the massacre of some 8,000 Muslim males in 1995 in Srebrenica, the worst bloodbath in Europe since the Second World War.
Mr Karadzic portrayed himself as a conciliator prepared to compromise on Serb ambitions to preserve the Yugoslav federation or to unite predominantly Bosnian Serb territory with Serbia. The Serbs "were claiming their own territories ... and that is not a crime," he said. "It was never an intention, never any idea, let alone a plan, to expel Muslims and Croats."