Croat war crim­i­nal’s pub­lic sui­cide stuns court

The Columbus Dispatch - - Nation&world - By Mike Corder

UN TRI­BUNAL /

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 cell­phones, 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.

[ICTY]

Slo­bo­dan Pral­jak drinks poi­son from a small bot­tle Wed­nes­day in front of a Yu­goslav war crimes tri­bunal in The Hague, Nether­lands. He died shortly after. Pral­jak drank from the bot­tle sec­onds after judges re­con­firmed his 20-year sen­tence for help­ing drive Mus­lims out of a would-be Bos­nian Croat mini-state in the early 1990s.

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