THE HAGUE, Jun 3 – Wartime Bosnian Serb army chief Ratko Mladic made his first appearance before a UN court in The Hague Friday claiming he was "gravely ill" after 16 years on the run from genocide and war crimes charges.
The man dubbed the "Butcher of Bosnia", better known from media images as a stocky commander wearing war fatigues, appeared before judge Alphons Orie in a grey suit and gold and black and gold tie, markedly older and thinner.
"I am General Ratko Mladic," he told the court, adding: "I am a gravely ill man."
For long Europe\’s most wanted man for atrocities committed during Bosnia\’s 1992-95 war that killed 100,000 people, Mladic was arrested in northeast Serbia last Thursday.
The 69-year-old is accused of masterminding the Srebrenica massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys — Europe\’s worst mass killing since World War II — and the 44-month siege of the capital Sarajevo from May 1992 in which 10,000 died.
He was flown to the Netherlands on Tuesday to stand trial before the ICTY after Serbian judges denied his appeal on health grounds and found him fit to stand trial.
Mladic will be asked Friday to plead to 11 counts of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).
"The purpose of the hearing is to inform you of the charges against you and to ask for your entry of a plea, as well as to verify that your right to counsel is respected," judge Orie said, adding: "It will take some time before the trial itself will start."
The judge also advised Mladic of his right to remain silent.
On the eve of the long-awaited first appearance, Mladic\’s lawyer Milos Saljic said that his client was treated for cancer two years ago while evading genocide charges.
The ex-general had also suffered three strokes and two heart attacks, the lawyer said.
The trial is not expected to start for months, and should last several years.
Mladic\’s one-time mentor, Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, died in The Hague four years into his own genocide trial in 2006, of a heart attack.
And his former political chief, Radovan Karadzic, has been conducting his own defence in a war crimes trial that started in October 2009.
If Mladic refuses to enter a plea on Friday, he will be given another 30 days to do so, failing which the court will enter a not-guilty plea on his behalf.
If he pleads guilty, there will be no trial and a date will be set for a sentencing hearing. He faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.
After his rights were read to him on Friday, Mladic told the judge: "I need a bit more time to think about all the things."
He added: "I need at least two months to read those binders (provided by the prosecution), if not more."
The tribunal was a hive of activity Friday as satellite TV trucks jostled for space and journalists and visitors queued since 8:00 am (0600 GMT) for the start of the hearing two hours later.
The tribunal had to rent extra space at a conference centre across the road to handle the expected overflow of visitors hoping to catch a glimpse of the ex-general in the dock.
"Mladic is a big criminal. He murdered my son, my husband, my two brothers," 69-year-old Kada Hotic, a survivor of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of some 8,000 Muslim men and boys by Bosnian Serb forces, told AFP outside the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
"I hope that this court will really get the seriousness of this crime and judge in the name of justice and of victims," Hotic said through an interpreter, adding she was "excited" to be in The Hague on such a big day.
She and a handful of other family members of victims addressed journalists outside the court, holding a big photo of Mladic in war fatigues and the words: "Mass murderer".
Mladic was represented Friday by a Serbian lawyer, Aleksandr Aleksic, assigned by the court to be present for his first appearance.