The wartime leader of rebel Serbs in Croatia pleaded not guilty Wednesday at the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal to charges of murdering hundreds of Croats and expelling tens of thousands more in one of the first ethnic cleansing campaigns of the Balkan conflicts.
Goran Hadzic stood and confidently said, "Not guilty, your honor," when Presiding Judge Guy Delvoie asked him for his plea at a brief arraignment hearing. No date was set for his trial to begin.
Hadzic, 52, was captured last month in a village in northern Serbia and extradited to The Hague, becoming the last of the 161 military and political leaders from the Balkan wars who were indicted by the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal to be taken into custody.
He faces crimes against humanity and war crimes charges for his 1991-93 leadership of a campaign by Serbs to carve off one-third of Croatia and join it to a Serb-dominated state. If convicted he faces a maximum life sentence.
Prosecutors hold him responsible for atrocities early in the Balkan wars including the siege and systematic shelling of the town of Vukovar and torture and murder of some 260 prisoners who were herded out of the town's hospital and executed at a nearby pig farm.
In another incident listed in Hadzic's indictment, forces allegedly under his command forced about 50 prisoners to march into a mine field, then opened fire on them. Prosecutors say 21 of the prisoners were killed by detonating mines or gunfire.
Hadzic refused to enter pleas when he first appeared before a tribunal judge last month.
His capture brought the U.N. court a crucial step closer to closing its doors when it clears its docket of trials and appeals, likely in 2015.
Hadzic's detention, after seven years on the run, came two months after Serb police arrested Ratko Mladic and three years after the detention of Radovan Karadzic, the military and political leaders respectively of the Bosnian Serbs. Both are accused of genocide in the mass murder of Muslims during Bosnia's ethnic war that ended in 1995.
Karadzic was on trial Wednesday in a courtroom close to Hadzic's arraignment, while Mladic is in custody waiting for his trial to start.