On its opening day, the tribunal for the former Yugoslavia heard prosecutor Grant Niemann describe Dusan "Dusko" Tadic as a committed Serb nationalist who killed, raped and tortured Moslems and Croats during a horrific "ethnic cleansing" campaign in Bosnia in 1992.
But Michail Wladimiroff, for the defence, said the 40-year-old cafe- owner and karate teacher was a victim of the need for survivors to find somebody to blame for their suffering.
Tadic, the first person to face an international war crimes tribunal since the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials after World War Two, is charged with crimes against non-Serbs at the Omarska, Keraterm and Trnopolje camps in northwest Bosnia in 1992. Niemann, an Australian, accused Tadic of committing atrocities in the camps as part of a systematic reign of terror aimed at driving Moslems and Croats away from the Prijedor area, so that Serbs could claim it for themselves. Tadic had visited the three camps at will to kill and maltreat inmates, Niemann alleged.
Wladimiroff, a Dutch lawyer, refuted this, saying that unspeakable crimes had occurred in the camps, but that his client was not involved. Wladimiroff said that after Tadic was arrested in Germany, following a chance sighting by an alleged victim, he had become a convenient target for for those who had suffered at the hands of Serbs and sought revenge. Survivors of the camps had discussed their ordeal, but their recollections were distorted and Tadic had become the villain, he claimed.
"The tribunal must be wary of the desire for revenge and the need for a scapegoat," Wladimiroff told the three judges. "The thirst for revenge must not be satisfied at the well of polluted justice," he said.
The presiding judge, Gabrielle Kirk McDonald, of the US, opened the proceedings - expected to last several months - by stressing Tadic's right to a fair trial. Tadic, married with two young daughters, has always denied the charges and protested his innocence again in a telephone interview with Dutch television on the eve of his trial. "Absolute lies have been made about me. The prosecutor has accepted them blindly and has not taken the time to investigate a single one of those accusations," he claimed.
Tadic was arrested in February 1994 and has spent over two years in jail awaiting trial. Dressed in a dark suit and tie, Tadic seemed tense, but waved to a person he recognised in the public gallery. Over 100 witnesses are likely to be called, some of whom will give evidence by satellite from the Serb-controlled area of Bosnia.