THE HAGUE, Netherlands – Former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic appeared at the U.N.'s Yugoslav war crimes tribunal for the first time Thursday, telling the judge he would defend himself against charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.
Appearing older and thinner than during the Bosnian war and shorn of the long white hair and bushy beard that once disguised him, Karadzic refused to enter pleas on the 11 charges against him or have his full indictment read to him.
He also claimed he cut a deal in 1996 with a U.S. negotiator to drop out of public life, apparently in return for his indictment being scrapped.
The United States has in the past denied his family's claims that negotiator Richard Holbrooke made such a deal with Karadzic, and the judge did not allow him to fully explain his version of events.
"This is not the appropriate moment," presiding judge Alphons Orie said, suggesting that Karadzic write a legal submission.
"I must say that this is a matter of life and death. If Mr. Holbrooke still wants my death and regrets that there is no death sentence here, I wonder if his arm is long enough to reach me here," Karadzic said before he was cut off.
In a July 26 interview with Germany's Spiegel Online International, Holbrooke was asked about rumors he made a deal with Karadzic that if he retired from politics he would not be sent to the Hague.
"Those are lies I do not comment on any longer," Holbrooke said at the time.
Karadzic said he would act as his own lawyer — as did his mentor, former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. The move caused Milosevic's trial to be repeatedly interrupted and delayed when Milosevic fell ill or suffered fatigue. He died in 2006 while being tried on genocide charges.
"I have an invisible adviser but I have decided to represent myself," Karadzic calmly told Orie.
It was his first appearance before the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal, and came just 10 days after he was arrested on a Belgrade bus after 13 years on the run from justice.
A member of Karadzic's legal team said Karadzic will go on hunger strike if he is not allowed to defend himself in his genocide trial.
"It is his basic right to defend himself," lawyer Svetozar Vujacic said in Belgrade, adding that Karadzic "will insist on that even if he has to go on hunger strike."
Karadzic, who smiled at times during the hearing, listened intently as Orie read a summary of the indictment in which prosecutors allege Karadzic masterminded atrocities, including the Srebrenica massacre and siege of Sarajevo during Bosnia's 1992-95 war.
Karadzic declined to have the full indictment read to him.
"I am not interested in having someone else read the indictment to me," he said. "I would rather receive the new indictment that has been announced and have sufficient time to study it and then have my initial appearance for that and enter my plea."
Prosecutor Serge Brammertz confirmed that he was planning to amend the indictment but gave no further details.
Orie scheduled a new hearing on Aug. 29 at which Karadzic will have to enter pleas. If he does not, the court will enter not guilty pleas for him.
In the Bosnian capital, coffee bars showed Karadzic's hearing on giant flat-screen TVs.
"It's him," said Elvir Kljakic, 27, who lost his father and brother during the war. "It's the beast. I did not believe it until now."
"I'm happy and sad at the same time," said Alena Tiro, 42. "Happy because the world seems to be not as bad as I thought so far if it forced him to the courtroom. Sad because 100,000 people he killed are not watching this."
In the small office of the Association of the Mothers of Srebrenica, about 20 widows watched the broadcast.
"There is the trash," one of them said when Karadzic appeared. Three women burst into tears.
"I have not found one bone of my children yet and there he is — alive," said Ramiza Music, 52, who lost two teenage sons, a husband and two brothers in the Srebrenica massacre. "Today I feel there is a bit of justice in this otherwise really pitiful world."
In court, Karadzic identified himself by stating his name, date and place of birth. He also gave his most recent address as his family home in Pale, Bosnia, but also gave the address of the apartment in Belgrade where he was living under an assumed name before his July 21 arrest.
When Orie asked him if his family had known where he was being held, Karadzic smiled and replied "I do not believe there is anyone who does not know that I am in the detention unit."