SARAJEVO (Reuters) - Radovan Karadzic saw himself as locked in a David and Goliath struggle to save the Serbs even as their forces were reducing the besieged city of Sarajevo to rubble.
On Thursday, 21 years after he was first indicted, the United Nations war crimes tribunal delivers its verdict on the man many Bosnians feared as the “master of life and death” during the war of 1992-95.
The former Bosnian Serb leader has been on trial in The Hague since 2009, charged with war crimes and genocide against Bosnian Muslims and Croats. He could be jailed for life.
A man who liked to recite his own poetry and hold court in a ski resort near Sarajevo, Karadzic was president of the self- styled Bosnian Serb Republic and supreme commander of its armed forces until he lost power in 1996.
The next year he went into hiding, disappearing until his arrest 11 years later in Belgrade, where he lived disguised as a New Age healer.
He became one of the world’s most wanted men, swapping his trademark bouffant hairstyle for a long white beard and adopting a false name. The U.S. government offered a $5 million reward for information.
The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia charged him with 11 counts of genocide and crimes against humanity and violations of the customs of war, including the Sarajevo siege and the Srebrenica massacre, Europe’s worst atrocity since World War Two.
After shaving off the beard and putting on a suit, Karadzic regained the look of a persuasive demagogue, denying any wrongdoing and saying he should be praised for promoting peace, not accused of murdering thousands.
“I have a clear conscience but a heavy heart because the war was not according to my taste,” he said during his trial.
Just as he manipulated Western envoys who visited him in Pale, his wartime stronghold in mountains near Sarajevo, Karadzic, a trained psychiatrist, tried to drag out his trial, refusing to attend sessions and asking to defend himself.
For 497 days in court, he became a familiar sight with his silver mane, peering through steel-rimmed spectacles at some of the three million pages of evidence that prosecutors entered in the mammoth case.
His aim was to pin blame on his wartime ally, Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic, who is also in trial for genocide, and to try to prove that some atrocities blamed on Serb forces were carried out by Bosnian Muslims against their own people.
He sought to portray himself as a Serb champion. “The entire Serb people stands accused,” he said in October 2014 in his closing statement at the trial.
During the war, he predicted the West would tear itself apart over the Serbs. It would be like the biblical fight between David and Goliath, he told Reuters: “You will know that David survived.”
His trial included testimony from 586 witnesses and the U.N. tribunal’s chief prosecutor, Serge Brammertz, complimented him on how he conducted his defense: “There are professional lawyers who have done a less good job than he did.”
At 70, Karadzic remains in robust health, reading widely, writing and playing soccer.
Born in Montenegro in 1945 into a family of Serb nationalists, Karadzic studied psychiatry and medicine at the University of Sarajevo in the 1960s and took courses in psychiatry and poetry at Columbia University in the United States from 1974 to 1975.
He worked as a psychiatrist in Sarajevo, where he had two children with his wife, a physician. He specialized in neuroses and depression and wrote poetry but was never fully accepted by the city’s intellectual elite.
He had a second job in the 1970s as a psychologist motivating the Sarajevo soccer team.
“He turned out the lights and played Mozart and Beethoven. We found it all very funny,” former Sarajevo soccer star Predrag Pasic told Reuters in 2008. “He would play ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’ and had us imagine the bee flying in the dark.”
Those who knew him say he liked to gamble. Karadzic spent 11 months in prison in Sarajevo from 1984-85 on embezzlement charges in relation to a loan he obtained.
He surprised many when he emerged as the leader of the nationalist Serb Democratic Party, which helped arm Bosnian Serbs and set up autonomous regions with help from the Yugoslav army and police.
As multi-ethnic Yugoslavia began to crack in the late 1980s after Tito’s death, Slobodan Milosevic was whipping up nationalist fervor among Serbs and his proteges among the academics and writers who spoke of creating a Greater Serbia chose Karadzic as their man in Bosnia.
On the eve of war in 1992, Karadzic warned against plans to declare Bosnia a sovereign state. It would lead the country into hell and perhaps “make the Muslim people disappear, because the Muslims cannot defend themselves if there is war”, he said.
War came and Bosnian Serb forces backed by Yugoslavia seized two-thirds of Bosnia, which paid for independence with 100,000 lives.
The Hague tribunal first indicted Karadzic in July 1995 for the shooting of unarmed civilians in Sarajevo and taking U.N. peacekeepers hostage.
He was indicted again four months later for orchestrating the slaughter of 8,000 Muslim men and boys after Serb forces seized the U.N.’s Srebrenica “safe area” in eastern Bosnia.
Karadzic dismissed the tribunal as a “political court” but went underground in 1997, seen by loyalists as a hero hounded by foreign powers.
He was arrested on a Belgrade bus in July 2008 using the false name of Dragan Dabic, with his hair now tied in a knot.
Milosevic, who died in The Hague in 2006 before judges delivered a verdict in his trial for genocide, masterminded the war in Bosnia using Karadzic as a frontman.
But in December 1995, Milosevic signed the U.S.-brokered Dayton peace settlement, sidelining Karadzic, who defied demands to leave office until international pressure forced him out in July 1996.
Behind the scenes, he tried to sabotage the accord. But when NATO began rounding up war crimes suspects in 1997, Karadzic could no longer live openly, even with armed guards.
He is said to have spent years in eastern Bosnia where hardline Serbs held sway. Reports, never confirmed, spoke of Orthodox priest disguises and remote monastery hideouts.
In the summer of 2000, he was sighted in Belgrade. There are also reports that he attended soccer matches in Italy and visited Venice using a false identity.
additional reporting by Thomas Escritt; Editing by Adrian Croft and Giles Elgood