War criminal dies after apparently drinking poison in court

The court session in The Hague was meant to be the final act of a decades-long legal process over the atrocities of the Bosnian and Croatian wars. Instead, it descended into confusion and, ultimately, death.

As judges at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia were delivering rulings Wednesday on appeals related to Croatia's involvement in the 1992-95 Bosnian conflict, one of the six defendants, Slobodan Praljak, who was standing, addressed the court.

"Slobodan Praljak is not a war criminal," he declared slowly and deliberately in Croatian, just moments after judges upheld Praljak's 20-year jail sentence for war crimes and crimes against humanity. "I reject your judgment with contempt."

In a scene befitting the theater director Praljak had been before the Bosnian war erupted, he pulled out a small container, raised it to his lips and ostentatiously swallowed the contents. He then said, "I have taken poison."

Praljak, a tall, distinguished-looking man with silver hair and a goatee, was taken from the courtroom and the hearing was suspended. Guards seized the container. The curtains that divide the court from the public gallery were drawn.

It was an exceptional moment in a room that has been the scene of ritual courtesy among robed lawyers, of witnesses choking on stories of torture and rape, and of once powerful men hurling insults at judges. But never a staged suicide.

Praljak, a former general, 72, later died in a Dutch hospital, according to Nenad Golcevski, a tribunal spokesman. "Mr. Praljak drank a liquid while in court, and quickly fell ill," the court said in a statement.


Many questions, however, remained unanswered, including the most significant one: How did Praljak obtain poison and smuggle it into the tightly secured courthouse?

As is typical, the defendants were transferred to the courtroom from a detention center within a high-security Dutch jail compound near The Hague on Wednesday morning. They are driven into the tribunal building through an underground parking lot, escorted by guards. Detainees have no contact with the public gallery, and any visitors who meet with them in jail — including lawyers, family and friends — pass through a security check.

Dutch investigators and police officers declared the courtroom a crime scene and are carrying out an independent inquiry. Praljak's suicide is the third by a defendant facing the tribunal, but the previous two had taken their lives in the court's detention cells.

Judges upheld the sentences against all of the six defendants, but the suicide of Praljak — the most senior member of the group — quickly overshadowed those decisions.

Before the Bosnian and Croatian wars, Praljak had been a theater and film director and a writer. He joined the Croatian army as a senior official when it was formed after the country achieved independence in 1991. He was eventually named commander of the Croatian forces fighting in Bosnia.

He was a key figure, in particular, during the long siege and shelling of the ethnically mixed city of Mostar. The siege was the most widely publicized Croatian military action during the war and included the destruction of the town's 16th-century stone bridge. At the time, he was the main liaison between political and military leaders in Croatia and the Croatian force fighting in Bosnia.

Praljak had been convicted of a number of crimes, and while the appeals judges on Wednesday overturned some parts of his conviction, they did not reduce his sentence.

The hearing also drew attention to Croatia's often-overlooked role in the Bosnian war.

The tribunal has for the past 24 years largely focused on the dominant Serbian role in the conflict, most recently sentencing Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb military commander, to life in prison for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

But Croatia, trials at the tribunal have shown, also orchestrated brutal ethnic violence to seize Bosnian lands once the Yugoslav federation began to disintegrate in 1991.

Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia and Franjo Tudjman of Croatia held secret talks early in 1991 to divide Bosnia. Mladic, court records showed, had at least two subsequent meetings to discuss the partition with his Croatian counterparts.

Forces led by Mladic moved first, in 1992. But the next year, Tudjman's campaign to occupy lands that he claimed were historically Croatian kicked into gear. Croatia used militia forces to terrorize non-Croats and force them to flee, tactics similar to Mladic's, though there was less coldblooded killing, and the numbers of prisoners and refugees were smaller. Tudjman died in 1999, before the tribunal had completed his indictment.

Prosecutors said militias that were funded and staffed by the Croatian government, and following its orders, rounded up non-Croatian men, imprisoning up to 10,000. Women and the older people were abused, raped and, in some cases, killed. Tens of thousands fled. Most of the victims were Bosnian Muslims, also called Bosniaks, but Serbs and Roma people also suffered.

Though none of the trials involving Croatia concerned the killings on the scale carried out by Bosnian Serb forces in Srebrenica or Sarajevo, a dozen ethnic Croats have been convicted by the tribunal for crimes related to their campaign of ethnic violence.

The session on Wednesday delivered a judgment that was much anticipated in Zagreb: It involved six Croats sentenced to prison terms of 10-25 years for their roles as military or political leaders during the Bosnian campaign. The judges threw out some parts of the convictions but said all six "remained convicted of numerous and very serious crimes." They affirmed all the sentences.

Both the prosecution and the defense had brought appeals against the judgments handed down against the men.

Prosecutors had sought longer sentences and affirmation from the tribunal that the Croatian government funded and controlled the militias inside Bosnia, following direct orders from Tudjman.


They offered evidence that included extensive records kept by Tudjman of his conversations, meetings and telephone calls, released to prosecutors after his death, and documents showing that his government sent funds, vehicles, weapons and senior military commanders to run the operations in Bosnia.

The defense sought the release of the accused or reductions in their sentences.

But the main objective of the Croatian government appeared to be to clear the name of Tudjman, his defense minister, Gojko Susak, and the commander of the army at the time, Janko Bobetko. Croatian authorities have contended that the three, who have all since died, played no role in the Bosnian violence and were not, as an earlier judgment found, part of a "joint criminal enterprise." But the appeal did not clear them and upheld the existence of a "criminal enterprise." Both within Bosnia and in neighboring Croatia, Croatian officials have characterized their actions as defensive.

Their reaction to the appeals and the drama Wednesday indicated, however, that many of the wounds from the conflict remain fresh.

Croatia's prime minister, Andrej Plenkovic, denounced the ruling, promising to seek ways to challenge it, and expressed sympathy for Praljak's family. Dragan Covic, the Croatian member of Bosnia's tripartite presidency, declared that Praljak's suicide had been "most honorable."

Joe Orovic contributed reporting from Zadar, Croatia, and Christopher F. Schuetze from The Hague, Netherlands.