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War Criminal Dies After Drinking Poison in UN Court

A military commander from the former Yugoslavia died Wednesday after ingesting poison during a UN war crime hearing. Upon learning that his 20-year sentence was to be upheld, Slobodan Praljak drank a small bottle of potassium cyanide and was pronounced dead a few hours later.

“Slobodan Praljak is not a war criminal,” the 72-year-old declared seconds after the verdict was announced in the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). “I reject your judgement,” he went on to say before bringing the phial to his lips and tilting his head back. “I have taken poison.”

 Slobodan Praljak.  Credit: Zoran Lesic/WikiMedia

After some initial confusion among members of the court, judges ordered for curtains to be drawn and the trial was blocked from view for both the spectators and the live television coverage.

Preliminary resuscitation attempts were made by the ICTY medical staff before an ambulance arrived to take Praljak to a hospital. The former commander died of heart failure not long afterwards.

In 2013, Praljak (along with five other Bosnian-Croat military and political leaders) was sentenced for his role in an “ethnic cleansing” campaign during the 1992-95 Bosnian war.

 The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.  Credit: Roman Boed/Flickr

The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. Credit: Roman Boed/Flickr

Praljak, once a TV and theatre director, was accused of targeting and murdering Muslim civilians en masse after being appointed the role of Croatian Army colonel (and, later, general for the ‘Croatian Defence Council’). Among other misdeeds, Praljak was in command of a concentration camp near Dretelj, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which detained Muslim men in subhuman conditions.

“These crimes were not committed in a random manner by a few undisciplined soldiers,” said judge Jean-Claude Antonetti at the time of the sentencing. On the contrary, the court found the actions of the six men had been ruthless in their precision and severity.

Praljak was given 20 years in prison - one of the longest of the six sentences handed down. He was due for release in 2019, after serving just over two-thirds of his sentence (including time served while awaiting trial).

Reactions from the Balkans about Praljak’s suicide have been mixed. For those who suffered at the hand of the military commander, his actions on Wednesday were yet another example of his craven character. Journalist Amer Obradovic, who was a detainee in Praljak’s concentration camp during his teenage years, tweeted:

''People who were with me in the camp survived the most horrific torture, but none of them took their own life. Camp detainees are brave people. And these 'great army leaders' and generals are mere cowards."

For others in the region, Praljak was a hero. On the evening of the commander’s death, mass was held in a number of Catholic churches across his native Herzegovina.

The Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic said of Praljak: ''[He was] a man who preferred to give his life, rather than to live, having been convicted of crimes he firmly believed he had not committed. His act struck deeply at the heart of the Croatian people and left the [ICTY] with the weight of eternal doubt about the accomplishment of its tasks.”

Questions are being raised as to how Praljak managed to smuggle a phial of poison into a high-security courtroom. Those present on Wednesday have spoken of the measures both visitors and members of the court were subject to before entering the ICTY, including full-body scanners and x-ray machines for personal items.

On Friday, the tribunal announced the launch of an inquiry into the incident, which will be led by Hassan Jallow, chief justice of Gambia and a former prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

Results of the inquiry are expected to be submitted by December 31, 2017.