Radovan Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb wartime leader, has told the United Nations’ Yugoslav war crimes court that he should be should be rewarded for “reducing suffering”, not accused of carrying out war crimes.
Appearing on the first day of his defence in The Hague on Tuesday, Karadzic told judges that he was innocent and was a “tolerant man” who had sought peace in Bosnia during the war from 1992-1995.
Karadzic, 67, faces 10 charges of genocide and crimes against humanity during the war in the 1990s, including the Srebrenica massacre and the siege of Sarajevo.
He was arrested in Belgrade in 2008, after almost spending 13 years on the run.
Karadzic began his lengthy four-hour personal statement by saying he had done “everything within human power to avoid the war and to reduce the human suffering”.
“I am mild and tolerant man,” Karadzic told judges at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), adding that he “had a great capacity of understanding others”.
“Neither I, nor anyone else that I know, thought that there would be a genocide against those who were not Serbs,” he told the courtroom as the wives and relatives of victims of the massacre looked on from the public gallery.
Hundreds of witnesses
Karadzic has been allotted 300 hours for his defence and said he will call 300 witnesses to testify on his behalf.
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The names include Greek President Carolos Papoulias, who was Athens’ foreign minister during the Bosnian war.
Karadzic has said Papoulias’ testimony could prove his innocence for the infamous shelling of Sarajevo’s Markale market on February 5, 1994, in which 67 people died.
Karadzic said an investigation conducted by the Russian Colonel Andrey Demurenko, the chief of staff of the UN peacekeeping force, into a second attack on the same market in 1995 had concluded that Serbs “would not have fired the shells in that incident”.
Having called the colonel as his first witness, Karadzic said the findings of his report had been “rejected as a source of information” as they went “in an unwanted direction”.
One of the counts is his alleged role in masterminding the murder of nearly 8,000 Muslim men and boys by forces loyal to him in the eastern Bosnian enclave of Srebrenica in July 1995.
The massacre, when Bosnian Serb troops under the command of wartime general Ratko Mladic overran Dutch UN peacekeepers, was the worst atrocity committed on European soil since World War II.
Over the space of a few days, thousands were systematically executed and dumped into mass graves in the area.
Karadzic’s legal adviser Peter Robinson said his client would argue that “no policy was being implemented (at Srebrenica)”, asserting that the former Bosnian Serb leader “did not know prisoners would be executed”.
He added that Karadzic, who risks life imprisonment if convicted, would tell the judges that while he did not deny that people were killed in Srebrenica, he “challenges the scale of the massacre”.
Prosecutors say Karadzic, Mladic and former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, acted together to “cleanse” Bosnian Muslims and Croats from Bosnia’s Serb-claimed territories after the collapse of Yugoslavia in 1991.
Milosevic died midway through his own trial for genocide and war crimes in March 2006.
Karadzic is also charged for his alleged role in the siege of the Bosnian capital Sarajevo between May 1992 and November 1995 in which 10,000 people died under sniper and artillery fire.
Like Mladic, he has also been charged for his alleged role in taking hostage UN observers and peacekeepers to use as human shields during a NATO bombing campaign against Bosnian Serb targets in May and June 1995.
Speaking to Al Jazeera in Sarajevo, Feda Bicakcic, a 28-year-old lawyer, said: “I think he knows he will be held responsible for his actions, and that his comments, about how he should be awarded for what he has done, are the words of a desperate man.”
Zelimi Tjagic, an economist speaking in Banja Luka, told Al Jazeera: “I think there are few witnesses who can confirm on his behalf that he is not a war criminal and that, as president, he did not do the things for which he is charged.”