The Hague (AFP) – Once-feared Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic Monday urged UN judges to throw out his war crimes convictions, angrily denying he was behind a campaign of ethnic cleansing and murders in the Balkans conflict two decades ago.
Addressing the start of a two-day appeal hearing, Karadzic, 72, fiercely denounced what he called “myths” about the permanent removals or expulsions of Bosnian Muslims and Croats during the 1992-95 war.
In March 2016, he was sentenced to 40 years behind bars for the bloodshed committed during the conflict which killed 100,000 people and left 2.2 million others homeless during the death throes of the former Yugoslavia.
Once the most powerful Bosnian Serb leader, Karadzic became the highest-ranked person to be convicted and sentenced at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, after Serbian ex-president Slobodan Milosevic died while on trial.
The trial judges ruled Karadzic was “at the apex of political and military structures” of the Bosnian Serb leadership.
But the former strongman hit back, lodging 50 grounds of appeal, claiming before the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals (MICT) — which has taken over from the ICTY — that he was not given a fair trial.
He told the five appeals judges on Monday that he was a political leader seeking to protect Yugoslavia and its constitution, and that his statements made in the 1990s had been “distorted” and “his words travestied” during the trial.
“If I had wanted war, I would have cheered the Muslims in their efforts,” he asserted.
– ‘Highway to hell’ –
Karadzic said he was found guilty on the basis of “jokes and rumours”.
“There is so much evidence that our strategy was not offensive. Our strategy was defensive in all of Bosnia. The territories were not taken by force,” he maintained, saying they had been settled by the Serbs “ages ago”.
Trial judges ruled in March 2016 that Bosnian Serb and Serb leaders developed an “organised and systematic pattern of crimes committed against Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats”, which included deportations, attacks on non-Serb populations, detentions and rapes.
The aim was “to spread terror among the civilian population,” the judges said, finding Karadzic guilty on 10 counts, including genocide for masterminding the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, the worst bloodshed on European soil since World War II.
But defence lawyer Peter Robinson denounced Karadzic’s “unwieldly mega-trial” and told the court: “We’re here today to ask you to overturn Radovan Karadzic’s conviction and to order a new trial”.
Prosecutor Katrina Gustafson charged however that “every one of his grounds of appeal suffer from basic flaws”, adding Karadzic had “failed to show any unfairness”.
He had been “adamantly opposed to independence for Bosnia-Hercegovina,” she told the court, repeating testimony that he had “threatened the Bosnian Muslims that they would face ‘a highway to hell of suffering’.”
In Srebrenica, almost 8,000 Muslim men and boys were slaughtered and their bodies dumped in mass graves after Bosnian Serb soldiers overran a protected “safe area” guarded by lightly armed Dutch UN peacekeepers.
– ‘Monster and liar’ –
Munira Subasic, from the Mothers of Srebrenica, told AFP on Monday in the tribunal’s public gallery: “I was sitting in front of a monster”.
“Karadzic is not a person, but neither an animal, because he has no feelings,” said Subasic, whose husband and son were killed at Srebrenica. “He is a liar, lying is his line of defence.”
The trial judges also found Karadzic guilty of being behind the bitter 44-month siege of the Bosnian capital Sarajevo, in which 10,000 civilians died in a relentless campaign of sniping and shelling.
But Karadzic said it was the “Muslims who were causing crisis” in Sarajevo, alleging they were “killing their own soldiers.”
Karadzic was however acquitted on one count of genocide, with judges saying there was not enough evidence to prove “beyond reasonable doubt” that genocide was also committed in seven Bosnian towns and villages.
Prosecutors have also challenged Karadzic’s sentencing, saying the trial judges “erred in law and fact,” asking the appeals judges to impose a life sentence.
An appeals verdict is not expected for several months at the earliest.
After years on the run, Karadzic was caught in 2008 on a Belgrade bus, disguised as a faith healer. He was handed over to the tribunal in The Hague and his trial opened in October 2009, lasting until October 2014.