Former Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic taunted his victims’ families in a Hague courtroom today defiantly vowing to "defend my people and my country".
The 69-year-old faces 11 indictments which include genocide, persecution, deportation and the massacre in Srebenica when 8000 men and boys were killed.
Wearing a grey suit and a grey shirt he spoke calmly to confirm his name and military title “I am General Ratko Mladic” he said. He removed a cap before taking his seat.
Mladic's appearance this morning in The Hague is his first public appearance since he went into hiding nearly 16 years ago, when he was indicted for genocide and war crimes committed in the 1992-95 Bosnian war.
He was extradited to the Netherlands on Tuesday when his appeal failed. The former war lord has suffered several strokes in recent years and has no power in one arm.
He told the court: "I am a gravely ill man", before adding he needed more time to understand the charges and have a "proper defence".
In a bizarre early exchange, he disputed the court's account of his date of birth.
The judge told him: "According to the indictment you, Ratko Mladic, are charged with genocide, crimes against humanity and violations of the laws and customs of law."
For long Europe's most wanted man for atrocities committed during Bosnia's 1992-95 war that killed 100,000 people, 69-year-old Mladic was arrested in northeast Serbia last Thursday.
"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, said 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".
When she caught the former commander’s eye in court she made a gesture of cutting her throat but he adopted the position of a fighter before declaring "I want to live to see that I am a free man... I am General Mladic and the whole world knows who I am."
He nodded and smiled at the weeping “mothers of Srebenica” in court and passionately defended his actions calling the charges “monstrous” and “obnoxious”.
Mladic is accused of masterminding the Srebrenica massacre - 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.
On the eve of his much-anticipated appearance, however, Mladic's lawyer Milos Saljic said his client was treated for cancer two years ago while evading justice. Court officials said a visit to the prison hospital last night was for "routine" tests.
The ex-general had also suffered three strokes and two heart attacks, the lawyer said, as the prosecution of the tribunal warned the trial would not start for months.
"It is a complex case, it will take time to prepare," spokesman Frederick Swinnen said.
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.
If he fails to plead to the charges on Friday, Mladic will be given 30 days to do so or have the court enter a not-guilty plea on his behalf.
If he pleads guilty, there will be no trial, only a sentencing procedure. He faces a maximum penalty of life in prison.
It was not clear ahead of the hearing whether Mladic had appointed a lawyer or would opt instead to conduct his own defence, like Radovan Karadzic whose genocide trial opened in October 2009.
The two men, regarded as the political and military architects of the Bosnian Serb campaign, are charged with seeking to "permanently remove" Muslims and Croats from areas of Bosnia in pursuit of a "Greater Serbia".
As international news crews swarmed into The Hague, the tribunal rented extra space at a nearby conference centre to handle an overflow of visitors hoping to catch a glimpse of the ex-general in the dock.
Mladic's family are not expected among the throngs, having said through a lawyer they will visit him after the hearing, "calmly".
The trial was adjourned after less than an hour and Mladic is due to appear again before the judge on 4 July.