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Trial in chaos as Ratko Mladic refuses to enter plea over deaths of thousands of Muslims

Former Bosnian Serb general, accused over massacres of 8,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica in 1995, shouts at judges in war crimes tribunal as 'not guilty' plea is entered on his behalf.

Former Bosnian Serb army chief Ratko Mladic removing his ear phones shortly before being taken from the courtroom in The Hague yesterday. Mr Mladic refused to enter a plea before a UN war crimes court. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ICTY / AFP
Former Bosnian Serb army chief Ratko Mladic removing his ear phones shortly before being taken from the courtroom in The Hague yesterday. Mr Mladic refused to enter a plea before a UN war crimes court. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ICTY / AFP

THE HAGUE // A defiant Ratko Mladic plunged his Yugoslav war crimes tribunal arraignment into chaos on Monday, repeatedly shouting at judges, defying their orders and refusing to enter pleas to 11 charges before the presiding judge threw him out of the hearing.

After a brief adjournment to have Mr Mladic removed, Judge Alphons Orie resumed the hearing and formally entered not guilty pleas on Mr Mladic's behalf, in line with court rules for suspects who refuse to plead.

Shortly before guards escorted Mr Mladic from court, he shouted at Judge Orie, "You want to impose my defence, what kind of a court are you?"

Mr Mladic, 69, is accused of masterminding the worst Serb atrocities of Bosnia's 1992-95 war, which cost 100,000 lives. He is accused of genocide as the top military official overseeing the killing of around 8,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica in 1995, Europe's worst mass killing since the Second World War.

Mr Mladic was disruptive and argumentative from the outset on Monday at only his second appearance before the UN court since being extradited by Serbia just over a month ago. He had been arrested in a village outside Belgrade after nearly 16 years as one of Europe's most wanted fugitives from justice.

He put on a cap and gestured to members of the public, in open defiance of orders from Judge Orie. Speaking out of turn, he complained of being "an old man" and told the judge he wanted to wear the cap because his head was cold.

Mr Mladic had threatened to boycott the hearing because court officials had not yet appointed the Serbian and Russian lawyers he wanted to represent him at his trial. He is being represented for the moment by the court-appointed lawyer Aleksander Aleksic.

"You are trying to impose impossible conditions on me - a lawyer I do not want," he said at the start of the hearing.

Judge Orie told Mr Mladic it was up to the court's registry, not judges, to approve the two attorneys.

One of the two lawyers Mr Mladic wants to represent him, Milos Saljic, said the former general's behaviour in court demonstrated that he was not mentally fit to stand trial.

"Let them now see for themselves his behaviour and let them decide accordingly," Mr Saljic said in Belgrade.

Mr Saljic added that he did not believe he could represent Mr Mladic at the United Nations court.

"I'm not a real candidate. I don't speak English," Mr Saljic said. "He's insisting on me because I have been his lawyer all of his life."

When Judge Orie asked Mr Mladic whether he was ready to hear the charges, Mr Mladic responded "You can do whatever you want."

But when Judge Orie began speaking, Mr Mladic said "No, no, no! Don't read it to me, not another word," and pulled off his earphones, slumping back in his seat with a frown. After Judge Orie warned him to be quiet or he would be removed, Mr Mladic shot back: "Remove me."

Hundreds of people gathered in the main square of the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, to watch a live broadcast of the hearing, cheering and shouting "the monster is gone", as Mr Mladic was escorted out of the courtroom.

Victims who travelled to The Hague were not surprised by Mr Mladic's behaviour in court.

Hatidia Mehmedovic, a survivor of the Srebrenica massacre, sad: "He showed who he is and what he is like. He displayed no regret and doesn't want justice for the victims."

In Srebrenica itself, survivor Fadila Efendic said Mr Mladic's behaviour was like salt in her wounds.

"We are made to suffer, to mourn our children, we are forced to watch him make a circus in the court," she said. "This should be a short trial, he should be treated the way he treated our children, how he treated thousands of innocent people … killed at his orders."

At his first hearing in June, Mr Mladic enraged war survivors in the public gallery by looking at them and drawing his finger across his throat.

After entering the pleas, Judge Orie adjourned the hearing without setting a date for trial or scheduling another hearing. It is likely any lawyers Mr Mladic requests that meet the registry's requirements will be approved quickly, and then judges can set a date for the next pretrial hearing.

Mr Orie told the court-appointed lawyer Mr Aleksic that if he was able to communicate with Mr Mladic, he should inform him of his not-guilty pleas and that he has the option of changing them at any time.

If convicted, Mr Mladic could face a sentence of up to life in prison.