THE HAGUE, Netherlands -- Ratko Mladic's lawyer said Thursday that he has a document proving the war crimes suspect has been battling cancer and that he was treated at a Serbian hospital in 2009.
Milos Saljic told The Associated Press that Mladic has suffered from lymph node cancer and that he underwent surgery and chemotherapy for it in 2009. The lawyer showed the AP what he called a photocopy of a doctors' diagnosis saying that Mladic was in a Serbia hospital between April 20 and July 18, 2009. The document has blackened out letterhead and signatures to hide the names of the hospital and the doctors who allegedly treated Mladic.
Serbia handed over the wartime Bosnian Serb army commander to the U.N. war crimes tribunal in the Hague, Netherlands, on Tuesday after he had spent 16 years on the run. Serbia extradited Mladic to the tribunal five days after arresting him in Serbia.
Tribunal spokeswoman Nerma Jelacic declined on Thursday to comment on Saljic's claim that Mladic had cancer, and there was no way to immediately check the authenticity of Saljic's document.
Saljic had argued that Mladic should not be extradited because of his ill health, and the general's family also had said he is in poor mental and physical condition.
Regarding the document, Saljic said he had only been given it on Monday, the day before Mladic's extradition.
"A man called me on the phone, asking if I was interested in a document that could prevent Ratko Mladic's extradition to The Hague," Saljic said in an interview in Belgrade, Serbia. The lawyer declined to identify the man.
On Thursday, the tribunal assigned a Serbian lawyer to defend the former Bosnian Serb military chief when he appears before U.N. judges for the first time to face 11 war crimes charges. Tribunal spokeswoman Nerma Jelacic said Aleksandar Aleksic has only been appointed for the hearing Friday and that Mladic will likely indicate in court how he wants to organize his defense. Many high-ranking Serb suspects have defended themselves at the court.
At Friday's hearing, a judge will first ask Mladic to confirm his identity, if he understands the 11 charges against him and if he wants to enter pleas.
Mladic evaded capture despite his long-held status as Europe's most-wanted fugitive, charged with orchestrating Serb atrocities throughout the 1992-95 Bosnian war that left 100,000 dead and forced 1.8 million from their homes.
Mladic remained in the tribunal's detention unit close to the North Sea coast on Thursday, which one former detainee, Naser Oric, described as like "a first class hotel" with satellite television and a computer in each 15 square meter (yard) cell.
They are unlocked throughout the day to allow the inmates to mingle. There is no segregation along religious or ethnic lines, and Oric and a former jail employee say the ethnic hatreds that fueled the Balkans wars largely evaporate once the former fighters are inmates together.
In Belgrade, Saljic said the document he had obtained "proves that Mladic was between April 20 and July 18, 2009 hospitalized with a very serious disease, that he underwent surgery and that he received chemotherapy."
The document didn't contain the name of the hospital, but it appeared to indicate that it would have been Belgrade's main military hospital because it says the patient had received a checkup in the same hospital nine years earlier. It is common knowledge that Mladic had been treated in the Belgrade military hospital in 2000.
Saljic, who has claimed that Mladic suffered at least two strokes as a fugitive, said he gave the document to a Serb investigative judge, but that it had obviously failed to prevent the extradition.
Saljic, who is also Mladic's personal friend, said he had not known that Mladic suffered from cancer while he was on the run.
The lawyer claimed he "has a reason to believe" that his presentation of the document actually hastened Mladic's extradition "because they suddenly cut off all family visits, packed him into a van, and transported him to the airport."