Lawyer pledges to polish up Mladic's image for free

Andrew Gumbel in Athens interviews the Greek celebrity who will defend the Bosnian Serb warlord
There are probably easier characters to defend than Ratko Mladic. After all, the Bosnian Serb general has been formally indicted on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. His name has been raked over the coals as one of the architects of "ethnic cleansing" in the former Yugoslavia, the inspiration behind the siege of Sarajevo, the destroyer of the UN "safe areas" of Srebrenica and Zepa, and the man behind a campaign of systematic rape and slaughter of Muslims.

So how do you defend him? Enter Alexander Lykourezos, his flamboyant, newly-appointed Greek lawyer, who has agreed, as a favour between friends, no less, to represent him at the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague and any other international institution where his case might come up.

According to Mr Lykourezos, who is a celebrity in Greece, the issue is very simple. General Mladic has an image problem. He is a straightforward, honest man who has not had the chance to explain himself to a largely hostile Western media.

"He is always presented as a very cruel man. But people forget that a civil war is always very cruel. Look at Spain in the 1930s, or Greece in the 1940s. Terrible things go on, but that does not mean you can blame just one side," Mr Lykourezos said in an interview in his Athens law offices.

"Actually, the indictment is very vague. It speaks of rapes and murders after the fall of Srebrenica. But where's the evidence? The Red Cross drew up lists of missing people, but who knows what happened to them? Perhaps they just left. According to the Bosnian Serb army, the only Muslims who died were killed in action.

"And besides, how come we don't hear more about massacres of Serb civilians? There are reports from Krajina of bodies of civilians found with their hands cut off, but there is no suggestion of punishing Croat generals and Croat politicians."

Mr Lykourezos, like many of his fellow-countrymen, is a true believer in the Serb cause. From the start of the conflict, he has maintained that Greeks and Serbs are tied by religion and a common interest in holding back "Muslims", whether they be Bosnian, Turkish or Albanian. He has Orthodox icons on his office wall, while his wild grey hair and beard make him look like a crazed Balkan priest.

Recently he has launched a private initiative to send aid to the Serbs, even appearing in television adverts to publicise his cause. The Greek branch of Nestle has donated 130 tons of milk, while this weekend Mr Lykourezos is due to accompany an ambulance from an Athens clinic to Petrovac, western Bosnia.

He met General Mladic for the first time two months ago, through "a very good Greek friend who keeps close ties with the military leadership", and promptly agreed to act at his PR agent and lawyer. Mr Lykourezos has already arranged an interview for his client with CNN, and plans to do more to up his profile.

"I think General Mladic will be more instrumental in bringing about peace than people suppose. He really wants peace, under certain conditions of course," he said. "He is a very honest, very determined man. His problem is that he does not have time to show people how straightforward and sincere he is. That is where I can help."

Mr Lykourezos has built up a reputation for taking on challenging clients. In the late 1980s he represented the banking tycoon George Koskotas, whose financial scandals eventually brought down the government. This week he has been involved in a messy celebrity divorce case in which the popular singer, Tolis Voskopoulos, has accused his estranged wife of embezzling billions of drachma in concert fees. Mr Lykourezos, representing the wife, was jeered out of the courtroom on Monday.

The Bosnian Serb cause, by contrast, has raised few hackles in a country which has consistently lent support to Belgrade and Pale. The Greek government responded to the fall of Krajina by sending a transport plane stuffed with clothes, food and medicines.