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Karadzic Opens His Defense As War Crimes Trial Resumes

  • Ron Synovitz

A video grab shows Radovan Karadzic as he defends himself at his war crimes trial in The Hague today.

A video grab shows Radovan Karadzic as he defends himself at his war crimes trial in The Hague today.

Radovan Karadzic told the UN war crimes tribunal today that Bosnian Serbs in the early 1990s were defending themselves against Islamic fundamentalists who were trying to claim Bosnia during the breakup of Yugoslavia.

Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb wartime leader, is accused of the largest mass murder in Europe since World War II. He made the remarks during his opening defense statement in his war crimes trial in The Hague.

He said Serbs were the first victims of violence in Bosnia -- killed by Muslims who had "blood up to their shoulders" -- and insisted that the conduct of Bosnian Muslims "gave rise to our conduct."

The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has indicted Karadzic on 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity -- including two counts of genocide -- for acts he is alleged to have committed during the 1992-1995 Bosnian war.

Karadzic is alleged to have orchestrated the 1992-1995 siege of Sarajevo and the 1995 massacre at the Muslim enclave of Srebrenica -- then a UN safe zone -- where Bosnian Serb forces killed some 8,000 unarmed men and boys.

'Greatness Of A Small Nation'

If convicted, Karadzic faces possible life imprisonment. Karadzic has denied all the charges. He told the court today that his defense will show how Bosnian Serbs were persecuted by Muslims for 500 years.

"I stand here before you not to defend the mere mortal that I am," he said, "but to defend the greatness of a small nation in Bosnia-Herzegovina which for 500 years has had to suffer and has demonstrated a great deal of modesty and perseverance to survive in freedom."

Karadzic said he would not try to defend himself by claiming that he wasn't important or that he did not occupy an important post as president of the Bosnian Serb wartime government.

"I will defend that nation of ours and their cause, which is just and holy, and in that way I shall be able to defend myself too -- and my nation -- because we have a good case," he said.

Karadzic then argued that the Balkan wars of the 1990s were not caused by the policies and intentions of Serbs or Bosnian Serbs, but rather, by the drive for sovereignty and independence by the Croatian and the Bosnian Muslim leadership.

He accused Germany and "Western diplomatic ineptitude" for encouraging the breakup of Yugoslavia -- and thus, "making civil war inevitable" -- by "prematurely recognizing" the independence of Croatia and Slovenia.

'Supreme Commander'

Prosecutor Alan Tieger said in his opening statement in October of last year that it was Karadzic, as "supreme commander" of Bosnian Serbs, who orchestrated the worst bloodbath in Europe since World War II -- part of a campaign to destroy the Muslim and Croat communities in eastern Bosnia.

"This case, your honors, is about that supreme commander -- a man who harnessed the forces of nationalism, hatred and fear to implement his vision of an ethnically separated Bosnia," Tieger said.

Karadzic responded to those charges today by saying that Bosnian Serbs were claiming "their own territories." He said: "It was never an intention, never any idea let along a plan, to expel Muslims and Croats" from the autonomous Republika Srpska.

Karadzic boycotted the opening of his trial four months ago, prompting the court to temporarily suspend the case. The judges appointed a veteran British defense attorney, Richard Harvey, to represent Karadzic if he was deemed to again be "obstructing" the proceedings.

Despite legal training, Karadzic has opted to represent himself at the UN court. He has refused to cooperate with Harvey and pleaded for a delay until June because he "could not benefit" from his court-appointed lawyer.

But on February 26, the court's three-judge tribunal dismissed Karadzic's request to adjourn the trial until the summer. The judges rejected Karadzic's argument, saying that his refusal to collaborate with Harvey "is a decision made by him and for which he must therefore bear the consequences."

Karzadzic today said he is appealing that decision. He also repeated his argument that he has not had enough time to study more than 1 million pages of trial documents -- 415,000 pages submitted by the prosecution since last October alone.

"We have good evidence and proof. And if I am given sufficient time and resources to prepare my defense, I shall be able to do so and it will be to our advantage," he said.

"Therefore, the only thing that I expect here is to be given the opportunity to have a well-prepared defense and to present my case here in a proper manner to show you the substance and crux of this matter and everything that hasn't been uncovered yet and hasn't been realized."

Protesters Rally

Outside of the tribunal today, women whose men folk were killed in the Srebrenica massacre protested against Karadzic and called for the court not to allow him to delay the proceedings. Among them was Melina Haziselimovic, from a group called the Mothers of Srebrenica Association.

"We are here today to tell the whole world that victims are still alive and we are waiting for the truth and for justice and that we, the victims of genocide, are looking for truth, are looking for justice," Haziselimovic said.

Suada Kapic is a Sarajevo-based artist who kept a day-to-day documentation of the Sarajevo siege by collecting maps, newspaper accounts, photographs, public documents, and oral histories. She told RFE/RL's Balkan Service that through her project, she has learned how people are able to survive in a state of terror, 24 hours a day.

"What is very important to know is that the people of Sarajevo for four years became professionals in the field of survival, which is very important to know in modern times in the world, because we know how we are treating climate changes, natural catastrophes, and terror attacks," Kapic says. "And we could pass our knowledge from our very tough times from the siege of Sarajevo about how to survive terrible conditions and to stay human beings."

Prosecutors have been ordered to present their first witness on March 3.

The UN Security Council, which set up the ICTY in 1993, has ordered it not to open new cases. The tribunal has indicted 161 political and military officials. Some 40 cases are still continuing.

Two men are fugitives and could still be brought to trial in The Hague. They are Karadzic's former top general, Ratko Mladic, and Croatian Serb leader Goran Hadzic.

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