Karadzic trial to start, but will he be in the dock?

Fourteen years after end of Bosnian war, victims hope to see justice at last

The war crimes trial of Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian-Serb leader who spent years on the run disguised as a mystic to avoid war crimes charges, is set to open today at The Hague. But the relatives of those who died in the Srebrenica massacre look like being deprived of the satisfaction of seeing the man accused of orchestrating the genocide actually standing in the dock.

Mr Karadzic, who faces charges of genocide and crimes against humanity relating to the 1992-95 Bosnia war, has vowed to boycott the opening. His defiant protest is directed at what he believes is a rush to justice that denies him sufficient time to prepare his defence.

Despite Karadzic's promise not to show up to court today, around 160 Muslim survivors of the war have made the long journey to the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in The Hague to see proceedings finally get underway, 14 years after the end of Europe's bloodiest conflict since World War Two.

"We are going to show Europe and the world that we are still here, still searching for the truth and still waiting for justice," said Munira Subasic, head of an association of Srebrenica survivors and victims, who is still searching for the remains of her husband and son. "Karadzic's trial should be conducted in line with rules and justice to avoid what happened with Milosevic. When he died, justice died as well."

Like the judicial attempt to bring his political mentor, Slobodan Milosevic, to book, Mr Karadzic's trial looks set to be a battle of wills.

He has copied the Milosevic tactic of choosing to defend himself, and has already succeeded in delaying the trial date several times. He has called for replacement of a judge, citing "his old age", repeatedly refused to enter pleas and has insisted he is in fact immune from prosecution thanks to a deal cut with the-then US peace envoy to the Balkans, Richard Holbrooke – an agreement vehemently denied by the American.

It was not clear last night how the tribunal would respond to a boycott by the accused today. The judges have several options before them: they can suspend proceedings, impose counsel to represent Mr Karadzic, start a trial without him or force him to attend the proceedings.

Mr Karadzic, 64, has been charged on 11 counts – 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 faces life in jail if found convicted at his trial, which is expected to last at least two years.

The former Bosnian-Serb leader vanished in 1996. His whereabouts were unknown for more than a decade until his arrest in Belgrade last year. The transformation from swaggering strongman to New Age healer was splashed on newspaper front pages across the world.

His fugitive alter-ego was an alternative medicine practitioner, who went by the name of "Dr Dabic". His long, straggly grey hair was pinned up in a bun on top of his head, his beard was bushy and he sported thick glasses.

It is now widely believed that the intelligence services who had invented the alias, were the same people who exposed Dr Dabic last year, because Serbia needed to improve its ties with the European Union.

The missing link in the quest for justice remains Ratko Mladic, Karadzic's wartime military chief, who is also wanted for war crimes by the tribunal in The Hague.