THE HAGUE, Netherlands — Seconds after a U.N. judge confirmed his 20-year war crimes sentence on Wednesday, former Bosnian Croat military commander Slobodan Praljak shouted, “I am not a war criminal!” threw back his head, drank liquid from a small bottle and told the court he had taken poison. A flustered judge halted the hearing and Praljak was rushed to a nearby hospital, where he died.
Shocking images of the 72-year-old former philosophy professor and theater director who became a wartime general shouting and drinking what he said was poison were streamed live on the court’s website and around the Balkans.
The death cast a pall over the last case at the groundbreaking International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Judges upheld sentences ranging from 10-25 years against Praljak and five other Bosnian Croat wartime political and military leaders for their part in a plan linked to Croatia’s late former President Franjo Tudjman to violently carve out a Croat-dominated mini-state in Bosnia during the Balkan wars by killing, mistreating and deporting Muslims.
Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic offered his condolences to Praljak’s family and said the former general’s actions reflected the “deep moral injustice” done to him and the five others whose sentences were also upheld by the appeals judges Wednesday.
In their ruling, the judges confirmed that Praljak was guilty of crimes including murder, persecution and inhumane treatment as part of the plot to establish a Croat entity in Bosnia in the early 1990s, as well as the 20-year sentence initially handed to Praljak in May 2013 at the end of the six men’s trial.
Ironically, Praljak, who surrendered to the tribunal in April 2004 and had already been jailed for 13 years, could have soon walked free because those who are convicted are generally released after serving two-thirds of their sentences.
After Praljak’s outburst, Dutch police immediately were called in to launch an independent investigation. Questions the detectives will attempt to answer include: What was the liquid Praljak drank and how did he manage to get it into the tightly guarded courtroom?
The courtroom where the dramatic scene unfolded was sealed off. Presiding Judge Carmel Agius said it was now a “crime scene.”
A Serbian lawyer who has frequently defended suspects at the U.N. war crimes court in the Netherlands told The Associated Press it would be easy to slip poison into the court.
Attorney Toma Fila said that security for lawyers and other court staff “is just like at an airport,” with security staff inspecting metal objects and confiscating cell phones, but “pills and small quantities of liquids” would not be registered.
Nick Kaufman, an Israeli defense lawyer who used to work as a prosecutor at the tribunal, also said a defendant could find a way to bring in a banned substance.
“When deprived of authority over the masses and the attention which formerly fueled their ego and charisma, such defendants can often be extremely resourceful with the little power they retain,” he said.
In the past, two Serbs have taken their lives while in the tribunal’s custody.
In July 1998, Slavko Dokmanovic, a Croatian Serb charged in the deaths of over 200 Croat prisoners of war, was found dead in his prison cell in The Hague. Milan Babic, a wartime Serbian leader who was closely cooperating with prosecutors, took his life in a prison tribunal cell in March 2006.
Wednesday’s hearing was the final case at the groundbreaking tribunal before it closes its doors next month. The tribunal, which last week convicted former Bosnian Serb military chief Gen. Ratko Mladic of genocide and other crimes, was set up in 1993, while fighting still raged in the former Yugoslavia. It indicted 161 suspects and convicted 90 of them.
The original trial began in April 2006 and provided a reminder of the complex web of ethnic tensions that fueled fighting in Bosnia and still underlies frictions in the country today.
Croatian Prime Minister Plenkovic said that his country’s leadership during the Bosnian war could “in no way be connected with the facts and interpretations” of Wednesday’s judgment.
Associated Press writers Dusan Stojanovic and Jovana Gec in Belgrade, Serbia; Sabina Niksic and Amer Cohadzic in Sarajevo, Bosnia; Eldar Emric in Mostar, Bosnia, and Darko Bandic in Zagreb, Croatia contributed to this report.