Croatian Serb war crimes suspect Hadzic pleads not guilty

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Former Croatian Serb leader Goran Hadzic pleaded not guilty Wednesday to charges including the massacre of civilians taken from Vukovar hospital in one of the darkest episodes of the country's 1992-95 war.

"Not guilty, your honour," Hadzic told judge Guy Delvoie of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, when asked to plead to the charges.

"A date will be set for the commencement of the trial," the judge told Hadzic, who was dressed in a dark suit, light-coloured shirt and dark blue and white-striped tie, listening intently to the proceedings.

The trial is not expected to start for months while Hadzic's defence team studies the evidence gathered by the prosecution.

Hadzic, 52, was the last of the Hague-based court's 161 wanted suspects until his arrest last month in northern Serbia's idyllic Fruska Gora mountains near the city of Novi Sad after seven years on the run.

The one-time leader of the self-proclaimed Republic of Serbian Krajina during the early 1990s is charged with 14 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

This notably includes his role in the massacre by Croatian Serb troops of some 260 Croats and other non-Serbs taken from a hospital in Vukovar, eastern Croatia, after it fell to Serbian troops in November 1991 following a harrowing three-month siege.

At Wednesday's brief appearance which lasted about 10 minutes, Judge Delvoie asked the one-time warehouse employee if he could follow proceedings in a language he understood and reminded him of his right to remain silent.

Accused of wanting to create a Serb dominated state, Hadzic faces charges of cleansing the non-Serb population from about a third of Croatia including through murder, unlawful imprisonment, torture, beatings, deportation and forcible transfer.

This he did together with other Serbs including Zeljko Raznatovic, also known as "Arkan", commander of the notorious "Arkan's Tigers" unit.

Tens-of-thousands of Croats and other non-Serbs were deported to Serbia including 20,000 inhabitants from Vukovar, the indictment against Hadzic read.

Thousands of others were imprisoned in short and long-term detention facilities were living conditions were "inadequate and characterised by inhumane treatment, overcrowding, starvation and forced labour."

Those in camps suffered constant physical and psychological abuse including mock executions, torture, beatings and sexual assault.

Chosen for his post with the backing of the late Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, Hadzic was seen as a "yes man" who wielded little real power compared with other wartime Serbian leaders.

Milosevic died in march 2006 in his cell in a UN detention unit in The Hague where he was being tried for war crimes and other charges related to the 1991-95 Balkans wars.

Hadzic's arrest came two months after Serbian authorities finally captured wartime Bosnian Serb army chief Ratko Mladic, the court's most wanted man.

© 2011 AFP

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