THE HAGUE: A strident Radovan Karadzic told the UN Yugoslav war crimes court on Tuesday he should be rewarded for doing everything to avoid war in Bosnia and insisted no one thought there would be genocide.
"I should have been rewarded for all the good things that I've done because I did everything within human power to avoid the war and to reduce the human suffering," the former Bosnian Serb leader told the court in The Hague as he began his own defence against charges including genocide.
"Neither I nor anyone else that I know thought that there would be a genocide against those who were not Serbs," said Karadzic, who is notably charged with masterminding Europe's worst post-World War II massacre in the town of Srebrenica.
Looking relaxed and dressed in a black suit, light blue shirt and striped blue tie, Karadzic projected an image of a schoolmaster, with his glasses perched precariously on his nose, lecturing the court and occasionally smiling.
His words were met with incredulous cries and sniggers from the packed public gallery, where several survivors and victims' relatives sat.
One victim, Fikret Alic, a former Muslim prisoner who featured in an iconic picture of emaciated prisoners in a Bosnian Serb concentration camp in 1992 said: "It is very humiliating for us to hear his speech."
"The whole world has seen what happened in Bosnia," he told AFP.
Karadzic, 67, is accused of being one of the masterminds of ethnic cleansing during the Bosnian war in the 1990s that claimed over 100,000 lives and uprooted over two million from their homes. He faces a life sentence if convicted.
"I am a mild man, a tolerant man, with a great capacity for understanding others," Karadzic, a published poet and trained psychiatrist before the war, told the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
"I have nothing against Muslims or Croats" Karadzic said, claiming even his hairdresser before the war was a Muslim.
But, he said, Bosnia's Serbs believed a genocide was planned against them by the Muslims and Croat population who were arming themselves after Yugoslavia split in 1991. "It was no secret, we could see it. We were pushed into a corner."
As at the start of his trial in October 2009, Karadzic told judges that the atrocities blamed on Bosnian Serbs including the killings at Srebrenica were "lies, propaganda and rumours".
Brought to court after his arrest on a Belgrade bus in 2008, Karadzic is charged with masterminding the murder of nearly 8,000 Muslim men and boys by forces loyal to him in the eastern Bosnian enclave in July 1995.
The massacre was carried out by Bosnian Serb troops under the command of wartime general Ratko Mladic who overran Dutch UN peacekeepers meant to be protecting the enclave.
Over the space of a few days, thousands were systematically executed and dumped into mass graves.
Prosecutors say Karadzic, former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic and Mladic acted together to "cleanse" Bosnian Muslims and Croats from Bosnia's Serb-claimed territories after the collapse of Yugoslavia in 1991.
Milosevic died midway through his own trial for genocide and war crimes in March 2006.
Karadzic is also charged for his alleged role in the siege of the Bosnian capital Sarajevo between May 1992 and November 1995 in which 10,000 people died under terrifying sniper and artillery fire.
Like Mladic, he has also been charged for his alleged role in taking hostage UN observers and peacekeepers to use them as human shields during a NATO bombing campaign against Bosnian Serb targets in May and June 1995.
Indicted by the ICTY in 1995, Karadzic spent 13 years on the run before being arrested on a bus in 2008 in Belgrade where he practised as a doctor of alternative medicine.
Judges dropped one genocide count in June, saying there was not enough evidence to substantiate the charge for killings by Bosnian Serb forces in Bosnian towns from March to December 1992.
Karadzic, who has been allotted 300 hours for his defence, has said he will call 300 witnesses to testify on his behalf.
Following a three-hour opening statement Tuesday, Karadzic turned his attention to his first witness, Russian colonel Andrei Demurenko, the UN chief of staff in Sarajevo from January to December 1995.
Demurenko is in court to testify about Karadzic's innocence in relation to the infamous shelling of Sarajevo's Markale market on February 5, 1994, in which 67 people died.
"Every shell that fell in Sarajevo hurt me personally," Karadzic said, before reading a long-winding statement in English, which gave a summary of Demurenko's findings of the attack, pointing the finger at Muslim forces.
Tuesday is a historic day for the ICTY as it also saw the start of the trial of Croatian Serb rebel leader Goran Hadzic, the last of 161 war crimes suspects to be handed over to the court.