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Karadzic boycotts trial opening

Ex-Bosnian leader says he needs time to prepare defense

By Mike Corder
Associated Press / October 27, 2009

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THE HAGUE - His chair was empty, his headphones lay idle on the desk. In courtroom one at the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal, outraged survivors of Bosnia’s bloody war gasped in disbelief yesterday as judges adjourned the opening day of Radovan Karadzic’s trial after just 15 minutes.

The former Bosnian Serb leader boycotted his war crimes trial, claiming he did not have enough time to prepare his defense - even though he was indicted in 1995 and had known he would be tried since being captured in Belgrade over 15 months ago.

The tactic forced a one-day delay in the trial and demonstrated the former psychiatrist was ready for a tumultuous battle of wills with the UN war crimes tribunal. Judges adjourned yesterday’s hearing but declared the trial will begin today “with or without’’ Karadzic.

Karadzic, 64, is charged with two counts of genocide and nine more of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Prosecutors allege he masterminded Serb atrocities throughout Bosnia’s 1992-1995 war, from ethnic cleansing campaigns against Muslims and Croats in 1992 to the 1995 massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica.

“We expected some kind of justice but there is not any,’’ said Suada Mugic, a Srebrenica survivor who took a 30-hour bus trip from Bosnia to watch the trial. “This is very hard and upsetting for us. Everything reminds us of 1995. My husband disappeared, my father, and some 23 members of my family.’’

She was one of dozens of Bosnian survivors who traveled across Europe to squeeze into the courtroom’s small public gallery for the historic trial. The Bosnian war left more than 100,000 people dead, most of them victims of Bosnian Serb attacks.

Karadzic’s whereabouts were unknown for years until his arrest last year, posing as New Age healer Dr. Dragan Dabic, disguised behind thick glasses, a bushy beard, and straggly gray hair.

Arrested in July 2008 after 13 years on the run, he has been working with a team of legal advisers for months getting ready for this trial, at which he intends to defend himself.

He has repeatedly refused to enter pleas, but insists he is innocent. He faces a maximum life sentence if convicted.

More than 200 witnesses are expected to testify in the prosecution’s case, which is scheduled to last 300 hours. Karadzic has been given equal time for his defense.

For its part, the tribunal is anxious to avoid the debacle that ensued when it tried Karadzic’s patron, former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, who dragged his trial out for more than four years by refusing to cooperate with court-appointed lawyers. That trial was finally scrapped without a verdict after Milosevic died in his jail cell of a heart attack in 2006.

In a letter dated Friday and released after the proceedings began yesterday, Karadzic again pleaded for more time. “From a standpoint of an accused there is nothing more important than a proper preparation and conduct of a defense,’’ he wrote.

One of his legal advisers, Marko Sladojevic, said Karadzic also would not be in court today.

“I think it would be legal suicide if he takes part now’’ without sufficient preparation, Sladojevic said after visiting Karadzic in his cell.

Yesterday’s trial opening lasted just 15 minutes, before Presiding Judge O-Gon Kwon adjourned proceedings and urged Karadzic to attend its resumption this afternoon, when prosecutors will begin their opening statement with or without him.

Prosecutor Hildegard Uertz-Retzlaff urged judges to appoint a defense attorney to represent Karadzic whether he likes it or not, saying he should not be able to deliberately hold up the trial.

Sladojevic said appointing a defense lawyer against Karadzic’s will would “create an even bigger mess.’’