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Karadzic: I'm no criminal – I was saving the innocent

Families of Srebrenica victims greet testimony with derision as 'Beast of Bosnia' begins defence

Radovan Karadzic launched his defence at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague yesterday with a display of the armour-plated impudence that served him so well while holding court for the international media during the siege of Sarajevo.

"I am a medical doctor, psychiatrist, psychotherapist, group analyst and writer," he told the court, looking relaxed and professional and sporting a modified version of his famous quiff. "Instead of being accused of events in our civil war, I should have been rewarded. Here is why: because I did everything in human power to avoid the war." Mothers of victims of the Srebrenica massacre watching from the public gallery snorted in derision and disbelief, shouting out "He's lying! He's lying!" as his catalogue of exculpation continued.

"I succeeded in reducing the suffering of all civilians," he declared. "The number of victims in our war was three to four times less than the numbers reported. I proclaimed numerous unilateral ceasefires and military containments. And I stopped our army many times when they were close to victory … I personally supervised the supply of humanitarian aid and the honouring of the international law of welfare."

Karadzic, known as the Beast of Bosnia, is one of the three Serb leaders to face trial in The Hague for their roles in the Bosnian civil war in which more than 100,000 people died. The Montenegrin psychiatrist and poet was President of the self-proclaimed Republika Srpska (Bosnian Serb Republic) from 1991 to 1995.

He and Ratko Mladic, commander of the Bosnian Serb army, supported by their ally and patron Slobodan Milosevic, President of Serbia, waged war on the Bosnian Muslim and Croat communities in a sustained effort to ethnically cleanse Bosnia – newly declared a sovereign state – and make it part of a Greater Serbian state. Methods employed included the 44-month siege of the Bosnian capital Sarajevo, in which 12,000 civilians were killed, and the massacre of the male Muslim population of the mining town of Srebrenica, in which nearly 8,000 men and boys were hunted down and slaughtered in cold blood in July 1995.

Karadzic faces 10 charges of genocide, other war crimes and crimes against humanity. In his defence yesterday, he claimed that the charges against him were invented by foreign governments and the media, while he himself was earnestly seeking peace. In particular he claimed that the shelling of a Sarajevo market in 1994 that killed dozens of civilians came not from Bosnian Serb forces but were a propaganda stunt by Muslims.

"I constantly sought and accepted four out of five peace agreements," he insisted. "I advocated, initiated and implemented the humanisation of the conflict by applying all measures of a humanitarian nature."

After the war – brought to an end by the Dayton Peace Accords in 1995 – Mladic and Karadzic went on the run. Karadzic was sensationally arrested on a bus in Belgrade in 2008. He had reinvented himself as a doctor of alternative medicine, working at a private clinic in the city under the name of Dr Dragan David Dabic. With a white beard to his chest and long hair gathered in a topknot like a Hindu ascetic, he had disappeared in plain sight.

After being brought to The Hague for trial in 2009, Karadzic initially refused to co-operate with the court, claiming he had not had enough time to prepare his defence. The presiding judge in the trial, O-Gon Kwon of South Korea, has given Karadzic 300 hours in which to defend himself, and he has declared his intention to call 300 witnesses. "Everybody who knows me knows I am not an autocrat, I am not aggressive," he told the court yesterday. "On the contrary I am a mild man, a tolerant man with great capacity to understand others."

In the dock: The charges

Judges acquitted Radovan Karadzic of one of the two counts of genocide in June, but 10 other war crimes and genocide charges stand. These include taking part in another act of genocide – the 1995 massacre of Bosnian Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica, in which more than 8,000 were executed.

He also faces charges of crimes against humanity, including ordering and abetting the persecution of Bosnian Muslims and/or Croats. A number of other charges are classed as violations of the customs of war, and include involvement in the 43-month siege of Sarajevo, during which 10,000 people died. Reuters