In a shocking turn of events on November 29, a former Bosnian Croat military commander and war criminal, Slobodan Praljak, committed suicide in the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) courtroom, by drinking a vial of poison. Authorities are currently investigating how Praljak was able to smuggle poison into the highly secured courtroom.
November 29 marked the tribunal’s final session, ending over 20 years of work investigating the role of Serbia and Croatia in the Bosnian War of 1992-95. Praljak was a theater and film director before the wars and joined the Croatian Army as a senior officer in 1991 following the country’s independence. He eventually became commander of the Croatian forces fighting in Bosnia. He played a central role in the siege of Mostar, Bosnia and was later convicted along with numerous other ethnic Croatians for their campaign of violent ethnic cleansing. The commanders had endorsed and implemented tactics leading to the abuse, rape and, murder of hundreds of people, mostly Bosnian Muslims as well as some Serbs and Roma people. The appeal judges at the ICTY reaffirmed the sentences of the six Bosnian Croat leaders, including Praljak, for crimes against humanity and almost all other convictions, including murder, rape, sexual assault, destruction of property, imprisonment, and deportation.
Just after the judges announced their decision to uphold Praljak’s 20-year sentence, he declared, “Slobodan Praljak is not a war criminal. I reject your judgment with contempt.” He then pulled out a small vial, raised it to his mouth and swallowed the contents. “I have taken poison,” he stated. He died in a hospital in The Hague, where the ICTY is located, within hours. Dutch prosecutors released a statement on December 1, stating, “The preliminary results of the toxicological test showed that Mr. Praljak had a concentration of potassium cyanide in his blood. This has resulted in a failure of the heart, which is pointed out as the suspected cause of death.”
Of the many remaining unanswered questions, it is still unclear how Praljak was able to smuggle the vial past security. As is typical, ICTY detainees are transferred from a detention center within a high-security jail compound near The Hague to the courtroom. They are escorted by guards, and any visitors must go through a security check. They have no contact with those in the public gallery, who also undergo security checks.
This dramatic development is still under investigation by Dutch authorities. Croatia’s president, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, said on December 1 that Paljak’s “act struck the heart of the Croatian nation. Croatia was not the aggressor, but, along with the United States, did most for the unity of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Croatia and Bosnia were attacked by [Slobodan] Milošević’s Serbia and the Yugoslav National Army and those are facts. Croatia didn’t attack anyone.”