Former Bosnian Serb military chief Gen. Ratko Mladic was too ill to attend a Yugoslav war crimes tribunal hearing Thursday at which he was scheduled to enter a plea to a new charge of multiple killings.
The U.N. tribunal published a medical release form signed by Mladic in which he indicated he was too ill to attend a court session, where he was to plead to a new allegation of more killings by Serb forces under his command during the early 1990s. Presiding judge Alphons Orie said Mladic would be asked to enter a plea at a later date.
The court did not release details of Mladic's illness. A separate form filled out by a nurse at the tribunal's detention unit says Mladic may "require an extended period of convalescence."
His absence Thursday underscored the frailty of the 69-year-old former general and fears he may not be well enough to survive the rigors of a trial expected to last years when it finally gets under way. No date has been set yet for it to begin.
Orie said judges have finally been given access to Mladic's medical records and are not considering ordering a comprehensive report on his health, "because of the medical issues" they are now aware of. He did not elaborate.
A team of Serbian doctors selected by Mladic also is due to visit him next week to assess his health.
Mladic faces charges of genocide and crimes against humanity for allegedly masterminding Serb atrocities throughout the Bosnian War. He declined to plead to the earlier charges, and the judge entered not-guilty pleas on his behalf as prescribed by the tribunal's rules.
He has complained of ill health since his capture in Serbia earlier this year.
Since his extradition to The Hague, Mladic has suffered the effect of a kidney stone, had surgery for a hernia and been hospitalized with pneumonia. He also reportedly suffered two strokes while on the run from international justice for 16 years.
His ill health led prosecutors to ask judges to cut his indictment into two parts so he could be tried first for allegedly masterminding the 1995 massacre of 8,000 Muslims in the Srebrenica enclave and put on trial later for other crimes, including ethnic cleansing and the deadly campaign of shelling and sniping in the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo.
Judges refused the request. They have not yet set a date for Mladic's trial to begin.
The tribunal has had bad experiences previously with defendants in ill health. Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic died of a heart attack in his cell in 2006, forcing a premature end to his genocide case. Milosevic's trial had dragged on for nearly four years, partly because of his health problems and partly due to his political grandstanding.