Updated at 11:33 a.m. ET
THE HAGUE, Netherlands - Ratko Mladic's lawyer said Thursday that he has a document proving the war crimes suspect has been battling cancer and that he was treated at a Serbian hospital in 2009.
Milos Saljic told The Associated Press that Mladic has suffered from lymph node cancer and that he underwent surgery and chemotherapy for it in 2009. The lawyer showed the AP what he called a photocopy of a doctors' diagnosis saying that Mladic was in a Serbia hospital between April 20 and July 18, 2009. The document has blackened out letterhead and signatures to hide the names of the hospital and the doctors who allegedly treated Mladic.
The top of the medical certificate clearly bears Mladic's name, date and place of birth, his father's name and Mladic's rank as a general. However, Mladic's name does not appear anywhere else on the certificate, which refers only to "the patient."
The mention of Mladic's rank suggests the form could come from a military facility, but Belgrade's military hospital refused to comment on Thursday.
Serbia's Defense Minister Dragan Sutanovac accused Saljic of "manipulating the public" and was skeptical about his claims. "I really don't believe in that story, but we'll investigate," the minister said.
Serbia handed over the wartime Bosnian Serb army commander to the U.N. war crimes tribunal in the Hague, Netherlands, on Tuesday after he had spent 16 years on the run. Serbia extradited Mladic to the tribunal five days after arresting him in Serbia.
Saljic had argued that Mladic should not be extradited because of his ill health, and the general's family also had said he is in poor mental and physical condition.
Tribunal spokeswoman Nerma Jelacic declined on Thursday to comment on Saljic's claim that Mladic had cancer, and there was no way to immediately check the authenticity of the lawyer's document.
If the document is accurate, it could add weight to long-standing claims that Serbian authorities knew Mladic's whereabouts when he was at large, but only decided to arrest him recently because it would benefit Serbia's bid to join the European Union.
Regarding the document, Saljic said he was given it on Monday, the day before Mladic's extradition.
"A man called me on the phone, asking if I was interested in a document that could prevent Ratko Mladic's extradition to The Hague," Saljic said in an interview in Belgrade, Serbia. The lawyer declined to identify the man.
On Thursday, the tribunal assigned a Serbian lawyer to defend the former Bosnian Serb military chief when he appears before U.N. judges for the first time to face 11 war crimes charges. Tribunal spokeswoman Nerma Jelacic said Aleksandar Aleksic has only been appointed for the hearing Friday and that Mladic will likely indicate in court how he wants to organize his defense. Many high-ranking Serb suspects have defended themselves at the court.
At Friday's hearing, a judge will first ask Mladic to confirm his identity, if he understands the 11 charges against him and if he wants to enter pleas.
Saljic said Mladic would not enter pleas at the hearing. If he does not plead within 30 days, the judges will enter not guilty pleas on his behalf.
Mladic evaded capture despite his long-held status as Europe's most-wanted fugitive, charged with orchestrating Serb atrocities throughout the 1992-95 Bosnian war that left 100,000 people dead and forced 1.8 million from their homes.
Mladic remained in the tribunal's detention unit close to the North Sea coast on Thursday, which one former detainee, Naser Oric, described as like "a first-class hotel" with satellite television and a computer in each 15 square meter (yard) cell.
They are unlocked throughout the day to allow the inmates to mingle. There is no segregation along religious or ethnic lines, and Oric and a former jail employee say the ethnic hatreds that fueled the Balkans wars largely evaporate once the former fighters are inmates together.
However, Oric said Mladic would likely have trouble adapting to the egalitarian regime.
"He is suddenly ending up in an enclosed space, in an environment where everyone is equal, nobody is superior or inferior: everyone is the same," he told Associated Press Television News in Bosnia.
"It is very, very hard psychologically for the people who used to be big, that they must to sit at the same table with others and not to be privileged. The fact that they must get up and get a glass of water for themselves, for example, when nobody wants to serve them," Oric said.
Oric, a Bosnian Muslim who spent three years in the unit, was freed in 2006 after being given a two-year sentence for failing to prevent the murder and torture of Serb captives. His convictions were later overturned on appeal.
In Belgrade, Saljic said the document he had obtained "proves that Mladic was between April 20 and July 18, 2009 hospitalized with a very serious disease, that he underwent surgery and that he received chemotherapy."
The document didn't contain the name of the hospital, but it appeared to indicate that it would have been Belgrade's main military hospital because it says the patient had received a checkup in the same hospital nine years earlier. It is common knowledge that Mladic had been treated in the Belgrade military hospital in 2000.
Sutanovac, Serbia's defense minister, denied that Mladic was treated at the military hospital in 2009.
Saljic, who has claimed that Mladic suffered at least two strokes as a fugitive, said he gave the document to a Serb investigative judge, but that it had obviously failed to prevent the extradition.
Saljic, who is also Mladic's personal friend, said he had not known that Mladic suffered from cancer while he was on the run.
The lawyer claimed he "has a reason to believe" that his presentation of the document actually hastened Mladic's extradition "because they suddenly cut off all family visits, packed him into a van, and transported him to the airport."