THE HAGUE, Netherlands - Last seen as a swaggering general in the Bosnia war, Ratko Mladic yesterday help rising from his chair for war-crimes judges, his limp right hand too weak to put on earphones without assistance.
But as his arraignment proceeded, his old bluster returned as he called his indictment "obnoxious" and told judges he doesn't want help walking "as if I were a blind man."
The capture and trial of the Bosnian Serb wartime commander on charges of genocide and war crimes committed during the 1992-95 Bosnian war closes the bloodiest chapter in European history since World War II and is nearly the final act of the Yugoslav tribunal, a court that launched a renewed era of international justice after the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals.
Together with his former political boss Radovan Karadzic, Mladic is accused of orchestrating the four-year war for Serbian domination in Bosnia that cost 100,000 lives and climaxed with the July 1995 massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the U.N.-declared safe zone of Srebrenica.
The first clear glimpse the world got of the 69-year-old Mladic after he spent 16 years on the run came after a curtain separating the public gallery and the courtroom was lifted yesterday. Wearing a peaked cap, he saluted the gallery with his left hand through bulletproof glass. Observers stood and strained to see Mladic, clearly thinner and weaker than when he led the Bosnian Serb army.
Two U.N. guards helped Mladic to his feet when the judges entered the courtroom, and he saluted them as well. With his right arm apparently impaired, a guard had to help him put earphones over his head to hear the Serbian translation. When he responded to questions from the judge, his speech was slow and slightly slurred.
Mladic declined to enter formal pleas to the 11-count indictment, but admitted no guilt. "I defended my country and my people," he said, before presiding judge Alphons Orie cut him short.
Mladic told the three-judge panel he is "a gravely ill man," but he remained alert throughout the hearing, nodding or shaking his head as Orie spoke. He seemed confused as Orie read a summary of the 38-page indictment, and said he had been unable to read the thick file of legal documents he was given after being extradited from Serbia on Tuesday.
Orie scheduled a new hearing for July 4. If Mladic again refuses to plead to the charges, judges will file "not guilty" pleas on his behalf.