Ex-Bosnian Croat leader Slobodan Praljak has died after drinking poison at a UN war crimes court in The Hague: Croatia’s state TV.
He took the court by surprise as he brought out a liquid after making a presentation before the court and drank it standing.
He was facing the United Nation (UN) tribunal in The Hague.
Seconds after his war crimes sentence of 20 years was upheld at the international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, Slobodan Praljak, shouted out angrily: “Praljak is not a criminal. I reject your verdict.”
Praljak, 72, 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.”
UN officials confirmed that Praljak had died after it was initially reported by Croatian television. Dutch police declared the courtroom to be a crime scene.
The unprecedented scenes came as judges were handing down judgment in the appeals case of six former Bosnian Croat political and military leaders. They are the court’s final verdict for war crimes committed during the bloody 1990s break-up of Yugoslavia.
As court officials surrounded the grey-haired and bearded Praljak, the presiding judge, Carmel Agius, immediately ordered the proceedings be suspended and the curtains screening the courtroom were abruptly closed to the public.
Within minutes, an ambulance arrived outside the tribunal in The Hague, while a helicopter hovered overhead.
Several emergency rescue workers rushed into the building carrying equipment in backpacks. A court guard appealed for calm, saying Praljak was “receiving all necessary medical attention”.
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”.
The judges upheld a 25-year prison term against Jadranko Prlić, the former prime minister of a breakaway Bosnian Croat statelet, and a 20-year term for its former defence minister Bruno Stojić.
They have not yet passed judgment on the three remaining defendants: Milivoj Petković, 68, Valentin Corić, 61, and Berislav Pušić, 65.
The bloody 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.
Wednesday’s proceeding came a week after the judges imposed a life sentence on former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic, whose ruthlessness in the conflict earned him the title of “Butcher of Bosnia”.
The Bosnian-Croat statelet, backed by the government of the Croatian nationalist leader Franjo Tudjman, 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 Tudjman in 1999, leaving Prlic the highest-ranking Bosnian Croat official to face prosecution for the crimes.
Commenting on the apparent suicide, Tudjman’s son, Miroslav, said Praljak’s gesture 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 Prlic and his co-defendants in 2004. The six surrendered with Croatia under pressure to comply with the court in return for joining the European Union. (NAN)