THE HAGUE, Netherlands – Last seen as a swaggering general in the Bosnia war, Ratko Mladic needed help rising from his chair for war-crimes judges Friday, his limp right hand too weak to put on earphones without assistance.
But as his arraignment proceeded, his old bluster returned as he called his indictment "obnoxious" and told judges he doesn't want help walking "as if I were a blind man."
The capture and trial of the Bosnian Serb wartime commander on charges of genocide and war crimes committed during the 1992-95 Bosnian war closes the bloodiest chapter in European history since World War II and is nearly the final act of the Yugoslav tribunal, a court that launched a renewed era of international justice after the Nuremberg trials of Nazis war criminals.
Together with his former political boss Radovan Karadzic, Mladic is accused of orchestrating the four-year war for Serbian domination in Bosnia that cost 100,000 lives and climaxed with the July 1995 massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the U.N.-declared safe zone of Srebrenica.
After 16 years on the run, the first clear glimpse the world got of the 69-year-old Mladic came after a curtain separating the public gallery and the courtroom was lifted Friday. Wearing a peaked cap, he saluted the gallery with his left hand through bulletproof glass. Observers stood and strained to see Mladic, clearly thinner and weaker than when he led the Bosnian Serb army.
Two U.N. guards helped Mladic to his feet when the judges entered the courtroom, and he saluted them as well. With his right arm apparently impaired, a guard had to help him put earphones over his head to hear the Serbian translation. When he responded to questions from the judge, his speech was slow and slightly slurred.
Mladic declined to enter formal pleas to the 11-count indictment, but admitted no guilt. "I defended my country and my people," he said, before presiding judge Alphons Orie cut him short.
Mladic told the three-judge panel he is "a gravely ill man," but he remained alert throughout the hearing, nodding or shaking his head as Orie spoke. He seemed confused as Orie read a summary of the 38-page indictment, and said he had been unable to read the thick file of legal documents he was given after being extradited from Serbia on Tuesday.
"I would like to read these obnoxious charges leveled against me," he said. "I need more than a month for these monstrous words. I have never heard such words."
Orie scheduled a new hearing for July 4. If Mladic again refuses to plead to the charges, judges will file "not guilty" pleas on his behalf.
As the hearing ended, rape victim Bakira Hasecic shouted from the gallery: "Monster man. Butcher."
Kada Hotic, who has relatives who were killed at Srebrenica, said Mladic taunted her when she threatened him.
"I told him he will pay the price for murdering my son," she said, adding that she drew her finger across her throat. Mladic could not hear her, but she said he gestured back, holding his thumb and forefinger close together to indicate she was insignificant.
"And I said, 'No, YOU are this small,'" she said.
Mladic's family said after his arrest last week that he had suffered two strokes during his years in hiding. He was given a medical examination after his transfer to the U.N. detention unit at the seaside suburb of Scheveningen, and doctors declared him healthy enough to appear for his arraignment.
Tribunal spokeswoman Nerma Jelacic said the tribunal's medical officer had not found any evidence of "life threatening illnesses." She said his frailty was "due to the neglect of his health during his years as a fugitive."
At the end of the 1 hour, 40 minute session he seemed stronger and more defiant than at the start.
"I want to live to see that I am a free man," he told the judges. "I don't want to be held and helped to move as if I were a blind man. I can walk on my own and if I cannot, then I will ask to be helped. I don't want to be helped unless I ask for it, because I am Gen. Mladic and the whole world knows who I am."
He repeatedly referred to himself as "general," while the court pointedly addressed him as "Mr. Mladic."
Mladic's trial, which is likely to last several years, is one of the most important since the tribunal was formed in 1993 while the war was still in progress. Since Karadzic's arrest in 2008, the former military leader of Bosnia's Serbs stood alone as the most wanted man in Europe. One fugitive remains at large: Goran Hadzic, leader of the rebel Serbs in Croatia.
As Mladic faced his judges, Karadzic's 18-month-old trial continued in another courtroom only steps away. It was not clear if the two men, who collaborated closely during the war, have met yet in the U.N. jail.
Mladic's arraignment was broadcast live in Serbia, where viewers appeared mostly indifferent, or curious to see what Mladic looked like after all these years.
But it was a wrenching experience for those who suffered most from the war.
Sitting in the gallery, Munira Subasic, of the Mothers of Srebrenica Association, wiped away tears and hid her face in her hands as Orie read details of the Srebrenica killings.
"Happy to be here to see, once again, the bloody eyes of the criminal who slaughtered our children in 1995," she said earlier. "And I am sad because many mothers didn't live to see this — mothers who found bones belonging to their children, buried them without heads and hands, and the only wish they had was for him to be arrested."
The fierce loyalty Mladic commanded during the war was undiminished in the former Bosnian Serb stronghold of Pale, in mountains close to Sarajevo.
"He was an honest and dignified officer, who taught us to defend our land and our people," said Novica Kapuran, a decorated Serb war veteran. "He never told us to kill anyone, to slaughter anyone. Even when we captured a Muslim soldier, he used to tell us to hand him over to intelligence services, so this guy could be exchanged."
Associated Press writers contributing to this report included Mike Corder in The Hague, Jovana Gec in Belgrade, Eldar Emric and Radul Radovanovic in Bosnia.