The Swiss crime fighter lauded for bringing former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic to justice says he inflicted "unspeakable suffering" on opponents, in a strategy to gain power.
Carla Del Ponte, who has built a controversial reputation in Switzerland as a fearless prosecutor and wild card - depending on her critics' point of view - has pursued Milosevic for more than two-and-a-half years as the chief prosecutor of the International War Crimes Tribunal.
She made her comments in the long-awaited case at proceedings at The Hague on Tuesday.
Now, after many false starts, a drawn-out extradition process with Yugoslavia and countless legal diversions, proceedings are under way.
In her opening address, Del Ponte accused Milosevic of being "responsible for the worst crimes known to mankind".
"Some of the incidents revealed an almost medieval savagery and a calculated cruelty that went far beyond the bounds of legitimate warfare," she said.
Since becoming only the third chief prosecutor in the history of the Tribunal in 1999, Del Ponte has made Milosevic her prime target.
He is the most important person ever to face the tribunal, which was established by the UN to deal with the types of crimes witnessed in the Balkans during the 1990s.
Milosevic stands accused of war crimes in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo during his 13-year reign as Yugoslav leader.
Supporters of the Tribunal say the Milosevic trial will put warlords and heads of state on notice that they cannot slaughter civilians with impunity.
Del Ponte's job will be to prove that the former strongman violated the Geneva Conventions, committed crimes against humanity and attempted the genocide of an entire ethnic group.
Her case is expected to argue that Milosevic persecuted non-Serbs in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo as part of a plot to create an ethnically pure "greater Serbia".
Milosevic - who refuses to recognise the court - will challenge Del Ponte's conspiracy argument.
The tribunal was initially set to hear three cases against Milosevic - one for each of the Balkan wars - but at the beginning of February decided to hear them all together.
Request to Yugoslavia
The last-minute change came as Del Ponte last week called on Yugoslavia to release for trial the former Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, and his general Radko Mladic.
As the woman behind the high-profile trial, Del Ponte is likely to be the focus of increasing media attention in the coming weeks of the trial.
In Switzerland, she is already a well-known figure, who has survived public criticism over her record, and an attempt on her life.
She launched her career as a senior justice official in canton Ticino, where a nine-year stint saw major crackdowns on a drug trafficking ring and money laundering.
That led to an assassination attempt in 1989 by suspected mafia killers.
She was appointed federal prosecutor in 1994 and had mixed success. Her investigations into organised crime networks between Switzerland and Russia, Algerian militants, a former Swiss army colonel and journalists - all ended in acquittals.
Now, at the age of 52, Del Ponte heads a staff of more than 500 lawyers and police focused on the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.
by Jacob Greber