'The Butcher of Bosnia' refuses to testify for a former ally at The Hague

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Marco Werman: In the Netherlands, strange scenes unfolded today at the War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague. Almost like theater of the absurd; two of the most powerful figures of the Bosnian war of the 1990s made a rare joint court appearance. Former general Ratko Mladic, once known as "The Butcher of Bosnia," was called as a defense witness in the trial of former Bosnian Serb political leader, Radovan Karadzic. Here is one exchange between the two men in court. [Audio clip] Radovan Karadzic: Mister General, did you ever inform me, verbally or in writing, the prisoners in Srebrenica would be executed, were being executed, or had already been executed? Ratko Mladic: Mister President, Radovan, I cannot and I do not wish to testify due to my health condition. On the advice of my lawyers, I hereby state that I want to reserve my right not to testify, and I refuse to testify because this jeopardize my health, as well as my position as a defendant in the case. Werman: An exchange today between Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic. The BBC's Anna Holligan was there. Anna, it's been awhile since these two men were seen together in public. Remind us, first, who they are. Anna Holligan: It's been awhile. It's been almost two decades, in fact. It was Radovan Karadzic's trial. He was the former political leader of the Bosnian Serbs, and he had called the former military commander, General Ratko Mladic, to testify in his defense. Now we knew that Ratko Mladic did not want to attend, and what you heard there, that response was pretty much the response that he gave to every single one of Radovan Karadzic's questions. But what we weren't expecting was his first explanation for why he was unable to speak in court. So he stood in the witness box, and he said that he couldn't testify because he'd forgotten his dentures. And he said to the judges, "I have no teeth. I cannot talk." So that was the first point at which the hearing was adjourned. Werman: Wow, what a scene. What did the judge say in response to that? Holligan: They didn't have much choice. They were forced to adjourn. What was really interesting, though, about how the judges dealt with this today, was that Ratko Mladic was issued with subpoena, so he was forced to come to court against his will. He said that his ill health was a problem, and he was worried about, as you heard there, jeopardizing his own case. And he's facing similar charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. His lawyer, actually, at the start of the session said that Ratko Mladic was suffering from a memory disorder that made it hard for him to differentiate between truth and fiction. And he also said that Ratko Mladic's health could be at risk if he was exposed to stress. There are thousands of victims who lost relatives in that conflict, who had little sympathy for Ratko Mladic, the man that many of them feel was most responsible for their suffering. Werman: The BBC's Anna Holligan, thanks so much. Holligan: Thank you.