THE HAGUE (Reuters) - Wartime Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic boycotted the start of his trial for some of the worst atrocities in Europe since World War Two, but judges said they would proceed without him if he stayed away.
Karadzic has denied 11 war crimes charges arising from the 1992-95 Bosnian war, including one over the 43-month siege of Sarajevo, and two genocide charges for the massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica and for broader atrocities.
The judge adjourned the trial Monday after 15 minutes and said it would resume Tuesday at 1315 GMT with prosecution opening statements, effectively preparing to try Karadzic, who has chosen to represent himself, in absentia.
Protesters outside the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia reacted angrily to Karadzic’s boycott, some complaining that the former psychiatrist was trying to dictate terms to the court. He is due in court again Tuesday.
“It is a mockery,” said Jasna Causevic, of the group Society for Threatened Peoples, who stood with members of about 20 victims groups around a banner with the names of more than 8,000 victims killed at Srebrenica and the words “Europe’s Shame.”
The groups later met Chief Prosecutor Serge Brammertz.
“Karadzic should be brought in pajamas to the court,” said Salihovic Nedziba, 56, a Bosnian Muslim from Srebrenica. “I need to be told who killed my husband and son.”
The chair where Karadzic, 64, sat in pretrial proceedings at the tribunal was empty. Ex-Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic sat in the same place for four years before his trial ended with his death in 2006.
The battle of wills at the start of the trial had echoes of the trial of Milosevic, who obstructed proceedings to buy time and gain concessions from the court.
Karadzic is the court’s highest profile defendant since Milosevic and judges are eager to get the trial under way. Arrested 15 months ago, Karadzic appealed earlier this month for 10 more months to prepare, but the court denied his request.
“There are circumstances in which trials can proceed in the absence of the accused who has voluntarily waived his right to be present,” said Judge O-Gon Kwon of South Korea, adding that he would impose a legal team on Karadzic.
Karadzic said he would only attend the trial if he was ready. “I would and will never boycott my trial, but if I am not prepared, that would not be a trial at all,” he said in documents released Monday.
Legal experts say that any newly assigned legal counsel would need time to prepare, leading to more delays.
The complex trial is expected to last years and involve hundreds of witnesses. There are more than one million pages of prosecution documents.
The break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s saw Serbs, Croats and Muslims fighting for land. More than 100,000 people were killed in warfare and by such policies as “ethnic cleansing.”
Karadzic, former president of the self-proclaimed Bosnian Serb republic Republica Srpska, is charged with genocide over the massacre at Srebrenica in July 1995.
He is also charged over the 43-month siege of the Bosnian capital Sarajevo by Serb forces, in which between 10,000 and 14,000 people were killed, according to various estimates.
Karadzic has claimed immunity from the charges, saying he made a secret deal with former U.S. peace envoy Richard Holbrooke that he would not be prosecuted if he dropped out of public life. Holbrooke has denied the claims and the court has rejected the claim of immunity.
Karadzic, once a psychiatrist specializing in neurosis and depression, stepped down from power in 1996 and went into hiding after he was indicted by the tribunal. He was discovered in Belgrade in July 2008 and extradited to The Hague.
Serbian officials said he had lived for years under an alias, posing as an alternative healer, and showed photos of him unrecognizable behind long hair, thick glasses and a beard.
His former military commander, General Ratko Mladic, is still a fugitive and still sought by the war crimes tribunal.
Prosecutor Hildegard Uertz-Retzlaff said Karadzic had exhausted all avenues to delay the trial further and asked the court to give him a warning before assigning counsel.
“Thereafter, if the accused still refuses to appear for the commencement of trial, at that time the trial chamber should impose counsel on the accused,” she said.
Alexander Knoops, an international law professor at Utrecht University, said a common pattern of disruptive behavior should be evident before judges decide to assign counsel, though that could also lead to more delays.
“Such counsel needs quite some time to prepare,” said Knoops, who is also a defense lawyer at the Yugoslavia tribunal.
Param-Preet Singh at Human Rights Watch also warned of the possible reaction if Karadzic was stripped of his right to defend himself.
Additional reporting by Reed Stevenson and David Cutler; editing by Tim Pearce