THE HAGUE, Netherlands - Ratko Mladic, frail but defiant after 16 years on the run, made his first appearance before U.N. judges and his victims Friday, dismissing a long list of charges of genocide, mass murder and persecution as "obnoxious" and "monstrous words" that had nothing to do with what he called the defense of his nation.
The capture and trial of the Bosnian Serb wartime commander 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 Nazis war criminals.
Together with his former political boss Radovan Karadzic, Mladic is accused of orchestrating a 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.
Karadzic's 18-month-old trial continued just a few steps away from the courtroom where Mladic was seen in public for the first time in more than a decade.
Mladic declined to enter formal pleas to the 11-count indictment, but admitted no culpability. "I defended my country and my people," he said before he was cut short by president judge Alphons Orie.
"Monster man. Butcher," rape victim Bakira Hasecic shouted from the public gallery as the hearing ended and Mladic struggled to his feet. She was few feets away from him but separated by a soundproof glass partition.
Mladic told the three-judge panel he was "a gravely ill man," but he remained alert throughout the hearing, nodding or shaking his head as the Orie spoke. But at times he seemed confused by the proceedings, and said he had been unable to read the thick file of legal documents he was handed after his extradition to U.N. custody in The Hague from Serbia on Tuesday.
"I would like to read these obnoxious charges leveled against me," he said after Orie read a summary of the 38-page indictment. "I need more than a month for these monstrous words. I have never heard such words."
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.
Mladic's trial, which is likely to last several years, is one of the most important since the tribunal was formed in 1993 while the war was still in progress. Since Karadzic's arrest in 2008, the former military leader of Bosnia's Serbs stood alone as the most wanted man in Europe. One fugitive remains at large, Goran Hadzic, leader of the rebel Serbs in Croatia.
Wearing a peaked cap, he saluted with his left hand to the gallery as a curtain obscuring the courtroom was raised. Two U.N. guards lifted him 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. His speech was slow and slightly slurred.
"I don't want to be helped to walk as if I were some blind cripple. If I want help, I'll ask for it," he said.
His family said after his arrest last week that he had suffered two strokes during his years in hiding. He was given a medical examination after his transfer to the U.N. detention unit at the seaside suburb of Scheveningen, and doctors declared him healthy enough to appear for his arraignment.
Mladic had lost none of the bluster he demonstrated as the supreme commander of Bosnian Serb forces throughout the 1992-95 Bosnian war.
"I am General Mladic and the whole world knows who I am," he declared at the end of the hearing that lasted one hour and 40 minutes. He repeatedly referred to himself as "general," while the court pointedly addressed him as "Mr. Mladic."
Mladic's arraignment was broadcast live in Serbia, where viewers appeared mostly indifferent, or curious to see what Mladic looked like after all these years.
But it was a wrenching experience for those who suffered most from the war.
Sitting in the gallery, Munira Subasic, of the Mothers of Srebrenica Association, wiped away tears and hid her face in her hands as Orie read details of the Srebrenica killings.
"Happy to be here to see, once again, the bloody eyes of the criminal who slaughtered our children in 1995," she said earlier. "And I am sad because many mothers didn't live to see this mothers who found bones belonging to their children, buried them without heads and hands and the only wish they had was for him to be arrested. But they didn't live to see it."
In Belgrade, Borko Jancic, said Mladic looked old and frail, and that "the whole situation is really sad. I can't believe that they forced him to stand the trial now."
Tadeusz Mazowiecki, a former Polish prime minister and U.N. envoy to Bosnia during the war, said he was satisfied to see Mladic facing trail.
"He is one of the biggest criminals of that war and it is very good that he found himself before the Hague Tribunal, even though it took very long," he said in Warsaw. "I was there and I saw how horrible were Mladic's actions."
The fierce loyalty Mladic commanded during the war was undiminished in the former Bosnian Serb stronghold of Pale, in mountains close to Sarajevo.
"He was an honest and dignified officer, who taught us to defend our land and our people," said Novica Kapuran, a decorated Serb war veteran. "He never told us to kill anyone, to slaughter anyone. Even when we captured a Muslim soldier, he used to tell us to hand him over to intelligence services, so this guy could be exchanged."