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Bosnian Croat war criminal dies after taking poison in UN courtroom

December 5, 2017 ·  By Owen Bowcott for www.theguardian.com

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Former commander Slobodan Praljak drank from bottle moments after judges upheld 20-year sentence in The Hague

A former Bosnian Croat general has died after drinking a phial of poison while standing in the dock at a UN tribunal in The Hague, where his war crimes sentence of 20 years was upheld.

Seconds after the judges had delivered their decision at the international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) on Wednesday, Slobodan Praljak shouted out angrily: “Praljak is not a criminal. I reject your verdict.”

The 72-year-old then raised a small brown bottle to his lips, and drank it in full view of the cameras filming the hearing. “I just drank poison,” he said. “I am not a war criminal. I oppose this conviction.”

As court officials surrounded the white-haired and bearded Praljak, the presiding judge, Carmel Agius, immediately ordered the proceedings to be suspended. The curtains screening the courtroom were abruptly closed to the public.

Within minutes, an ambulance arrived outside the tribunal, while a helicopter hovered overhead. Praljak was taken to hospital but officially declared dead a few hours later.

An investigation is likely to be launched into who supplied him with the poison and how he could have smuggled the bottle into court through what should have been strict security at the longest-running war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

An official statement from the ICTY said: “Mr Slobodan Praljak, one of six defence appellants in the Prlić et al case, passed away today in HMC hospital in The Hague.

“During the public pronouncement of the appeal judgment the appeals chamber confirmed his conviction and affirmed Mr Praljak’s sentence of 20 years of imprisonment. Immediately thereafter, Mr Praljak drank a liquid while in court, and quickly fell ill.

“Mr Praljak was immediately assisted by the ICTY medical staff. Simultaneously an ambulance was summoned. Mr Praljak was transported to a nearby hospital to receive further medical assistance where he passed away.

“In accordance with standard procedures, at the request of the ICTY, the Dutch authorities have initiated an independent investigation which is currently ongoing. The tribunal has extended its condolences to the next of kin.”

The Croatian prime minister, Andrej Plenković, had earlier confirmed Praljak’s death after it was initially reported on Croatian state TV and offered his condolences to the family.

Plenković said: “His act, which we regrettably saw today, mostly speaks about a deep moral injustice towards six Croats from Bosnia and the Croatian people … We voice dissatisfaction and regret about the verdict.”

Slobodan Praljak, second from right, sings a Croatian hymn with former soldiers before his departure to the Hague tribunal in April 2004. Photograph: Antonio Bat/EPA

Slobodan Praljak, second from right, sings a Croatian hymn with former soldiers before his departure to the Hague tribunal in April 2004. Photograph: Antonio Bat/EPA

Dutch police have declared the courtroom a crime scene.

The unprecedented disruption came as judges were handing down their ruling in the appeals case of six former Bosnian Croat political and military leaders accused of war crimes during the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Praljak was charged with ordering the destruction of Mostar’s 16th-century bridge in November 1993, which judges in the first trial had said “caused disproportionate damage to the Muslim civilian population”.

A symbol of Bosnia’s devastation in the war, the Ottoman-era bridge was later rebuilt. The city experienced some of the worst of the Croat-Muslim clashes, with nearly 80% of its eastern area destroyed in the fighting.

In their ruling, the judges allowed part of Praljak’s appeal, saying the bridge had been a legitimate military target during the conflict. They also overturned some of his convictions but refused to reduce his overall sentence.

The case has been keenly watched in Zagreb, and the appeal judges said that all six men, who had been found guilty of taking part in a scheme to remove Bosnian Muslims, “remained convicted of numerous and very serious crimes”.

Praljak had already completed a significant proportion of his sentence. Before the Bosnian conflict, he had been a writer and film director.

One lawyer who has defended suspects at the ICTY said it would be easy to bring poison into the court. Toma Fila, a Serbian lawyer who has frequently defended suspects at the UN war crimes court in the Netherlands, said that security for lawyers and other court staff was “just like at an airport”.

He said: “They inspect metal objects, like belts, metal money, shoes, and take away mobile phones”. But, he said, “pills and small quantities of liquids” may not be picked up.

Earlier in the proceedings, the judges had upheld a 25-year prison term against Jadranko Prlić, the former prime minister of a breakaway Bosnian Croat statelet, Herceg-Bosna, and a 20-year term for its former defence minister Bruno Stojić.

The 1992-95 war in Bosnia, in which 100,000 people died and 2.2 million were displaced, mainly pitted Bosnian Muslims against Bosnian Serbs, but also saw brutal fighting between Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats after an initial alliance fell apart.

The proceedings on Wednesday came a week after the judges imposed a life sentence on the former Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladić, whose ruthlessness in the conflict earned him the title of “butcher of Bosnia”.

Herceg-Bosna, backed by the government of the Croatian nationalist leader Franjo Tuđman, was formally dismantled in 1996 as part of the peace deal that ended the war. The “president” of Herceg-Bosna, Mate Boban, died in 1997 and Tuđman in 1999, leaving Prlić the highest-ranking Bosnian Croat official to face prosecution for the crimes.

Commenting on Praljak’s actions, Tuđman’s son, Miroslav, said it was a “consequence of his moral position not to accept the verdict that has nothing to do with justice or reality”.

Nick Kaufman, a former prosecutor at the ICTY, said: “When deprived of authority over the masses and the attention which formerly fuelled their ego and charisma, such defendants can often be extremely resourceful with the little power they retain.”

The ICTY charged Praljak and his co-defendants in 2004. The six surrendered with Croatia under pressure to comply with the court in return for joining the EU.

The ICTY closes its doors on 31 December, having indicted and dealt with 161 people.

Praljak is not the first defendant to die in ICTY custody at The Hague. The former Croatian Serb leader Milan Babić killed himself at the nearby Scheveningen detention centre in 2006. Another Croatian Serb, Slavko Dokmanović, was found hanging from the door of his cell in 1998.

Additional reporting by Max Opray.

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