Former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic refused to attend the start of his war crimes trial today saying he was not ready, and judges said they would impose a legal team on him if he failed to show up again.
"I confirm that Mr Karadzic is not present," presiding Judge O-Gon Kwon said today at the opening session which lasted less than 15 minutes. He then urged the accused to appear before the court today, when the prosecution is expected to read the indictment.
The judge also warned that the court could impose a defence attorney on Mr Karadzic if he showed "consistently obstructive behaviour".
The indictment against Mr Karadzic, 64, lists 11 charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed during the 1992-95 war in Bosnia. The most heinous of them is the massacre of more than 7,000 Muslims in Srebrenica, along with the three-and-a-half year siege of Sarajevo that resulted in more than 10,000 deaths.
Although the former Bosnian Serb leader risks a life sentence if found guilty, he has insisted on conducting his own defence, like his war time ally, the late Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic.
Following Mr Karadzic’s non-appearance, prosecutor Hildegard Uertz-Retzlaff asked the court to issue Mr Karadzic with an official warning. If he failed to respond to that, Ms Uertz-Retzlaff said, "a counsel should be imposed on him."
According to the tribunal's rules of procedure, the defendant's presence in court is essential for the trial to be considered fair, and any solution imposed by the court because of Mr Karadzic's absence could cast a shadow on a process which has been described as one of the most important in the court's history.
This case is viewed as an opportunity for the court to save face after the ill-fated trial of Mr Milosevic which dragged on for four years before he died of a heart attack in 2006, with the verdict still pending.
But the imposition of counsel would cause another delay, as any attorney would need months to prepare the defence. This would play into the hands of the man who has evaded justice ever since his withdrawal from public life 13 years ago. Mr Karadzic was arrested in Serbia in July 2008, after years of practicing alternative medicine under the alias "Dr Dabic."
The families of victims of Srerenica who had travelled across Europe to attend the hearing were indignant about yesterday’s events. One woman said the trial was "a circus". Admira Fazlic, who was imprisoned in a Bosnian Serb-run camp during the conflict, shook her head as she left the courtroom.
"We are shocked," she said. "Radovan Karadzic is making the world and justice ridiculous. He is making a fool of everybody."