Bosnian Serb leader Karadzic: War criminal with '1,000 faces'

Bosnian Serb wartime leader Radovan Karadzic was convicted of 10 charges in total.

President, psychiatrist, poet and even New Age healer -- Serb hero Radovan Karadzic lived a varied life before being convicted of war crimes in The Hague.

Now the former Bosnian Serb leader will spend the rest of it in jail, after a UN court handed him a life sentence on appeal for his role in Bosnia's 1990s inter-ethnic war, which left 100,000 people dead and displaced more than two million.

The tribunal increased Karadzic's sentence from 40 years to life, upholding his conviction on charges including genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The worst atrocity on the charge-sheet was the slaughter of some 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the eastern town of Srebrenica in July 1995.

While international justice has now laid down its final judgement of the 73-year-old, Karadzic remains a deeply divisive figure in the court of public opinion.

To the international community and his foes, Bosnia's Croats and Muslims, he is a monster responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people.

But for many Serbs he remains a hero -- akin to those in the epic Serb poetry that inspired him -- who stood up for his people in the 1992-1995 Bosnian war as Yugoslavia fell apart.

"Personally, I don't believe in the legitimacy of this court," the current leader of Bosnia's Serbs, Milorad Dodik, said on the eve of the ruling.


Karadzic was born in the poor Montenegrin village of Petnjica in June 1945 -- the same year that Josip Broz Tito's communist Yugoslavia came into being at the end of World War II.

In 1960 Karadzic moved to ethnically mixed Sarajevo, where he studied medicine, met his wife Ljiljana and later served a year in prison for fraud.

A keen poet, Karadzic was said to live a bohemian lifestyle and have Muslim friends, working as a football team psychiatrist and showing few nationalistic tendencies.

His professional mentor, psychiatrist Ismet Ceric, told the US programme Frontline that Karadzic had "a thousand different faces" and likely a personality disorder.

"He doesn't live in reality," said Ceric, describing the poetry Karadzic was so proud of as "very, very ordinary".

It was not until 1990, as communism collapsed, that Karadzic entered politics and founded the nationalist Serb Democratic Party, soon discovering a taste for power.

After Bosnia became independent from Yugoslavia in 1992 following a referendum boycotted by Bosnian Serbs, Belgrade-backed Karadzic declared a separate Serb entity, the Republika Srpska, with himself as leader.

In the bitter war that ensued with Bosnia's Muslim-led government, Karadzic is blamed for authorising ethnic cleansing in which more than a million non-Serbs were driven from their homes, accompanied by widespread killing and rape in a calculated programme of terror.

Bosnian Muslim women, survivors of the Srebrenica 1995 massacre, pray by the tombstones of relatives at the Srebrenica memorial in Potocari, on March 20, 2019.Photo: AFP

Opening the prosecution at his trial in 2009, Alan Tieger described Karadzic as the "supreme commander, a man who harnessed the forces of nationalism, hatred and fear to implement his vision of an ethnically separated Bosnia".


At the end of 1995, Karadzic was excluded from the peace negotiations by his former ally, Belgrade's strongman Slobodan Milosevic, who later died in detention in The Hague before facing a verdict.

The late Richard Holbrooke, a chief architect of the 1995 Dayton peace accord that ended the war, once described Karadzic as "one of the worst, most evil men in the world".

"He would have made a good Nazi," Holbrooke told Der Spiegel magazine after Karadzic's arrest.

After the peace accord, Karadzic resigned under pressure from the international community and went into hiding, with reports emerging of him sheltering in remote Orthodox monasteries in the region.

Winning near-mythical status as spy services failed to find him, Karadzic took on the alter ego of spiritual healer Dragan Dabic, who gave lectures, had a national magazine column and drank in a Belgrade bar called the Madhouse.

With a US$5 million (S$6.7 million) bounty on his head, Dabic was finally unmasked as Karadzic when he was arrested on a Belgrade bus in 2008, after nearly 13 years on the run.

The news sparked celebrations in Sarajevo and protests in Belgrade, while a defiant Karadzic was sent to The Hague, where he will now spend his remaining years.