A former Bosnian general has died after drinking an unknown substance in The Hague on Wednesday. After his appeal against a 20-year war-crime sentence was rejected by a judge, Slobodan Praljak drank from a vial that he declared was poison, and later died in a hospital.
Praljak commanded Bosnian Croat forces during the Bosnian civil war in the early 1990s and was convicted of war crimes against Bosnian Muslims during an attempt to establish an “ethnically pure” Croatian state. He was found guilty of participating in the “ethnic cleansing” of several towns through violence, theft, mass arrests, sexual violence, and killings, in a targeted campaign against Muslim civilians. He was also responsible for maintaining several prison camps for captured Bosnian Muslims, where conditions were so poor that many died. Praljak voluntarily surrendered to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in April 2004, and his trial began in 2006.
Wednesday’s hearing was the final ruling for Praljak and five other Croatian politicians convicted of crimes against humanity and war crimes during the civil war. After judge Carmel Agius read out the verdict, Praljak stood up and took a vial from his pocket. As the judge asked him to sit down, he said, “Slobodan Praljak is not a war criminal. I am rejecting your verdict with contempt,” before drinking from the vial. It took several moments for the court to realize that Praljak was ill, at which point he said, “I have taken poison.” Although Judge Agius suspended the court and called for medical attention, Praljak died in a hospital.
Dutch prosecutor Marilyn Fikenscher confirmed that a forensic test of the vial showed that “there was a chemical substance in that container that can cause death,” but did not name the substance. Local authorities have not yet determined how Praljak was able to smuggle the toxic substance into a high-security courtroom, or how he was able to obtain it despite being imprisoned since his original trial in 2013.
Serbian lawyer Toma Fila said that it would have been relatively easy to smuggle the poison into the courtroom, as security “is just like at an airport”: while there is a metal detector and a ban on phones, “pills and small quantities of liquids” are not inspected.
There is also an ongoing investigation into how Praljak got the toxic substance in the first place. Some have cast suspicions on security at The Hague’s Scheveningen prison, often called “the Hilton Hague” for its relaxed atmosphere. While lawyer Peter Robinson told the BBC that visitors go through “two security checks” where “everything is searched before you go in,” lawyer Goran Mikuličić pointed to the privacy accorded to prisoners during visits with family as a possible time of transfer. “Anyone could have brought him a bottle of poison easily,” he told CNN affiliate N1.
Praljak’s death has stirred up old tensions in Croatia. The Croatian Parliament began their session on Thursday for Praljak and “all victims of the wars in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina”, including civilians and “the killed and missing Croatian defenders.” Afterwards, Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic said his death spoke of a “deep moral injustice towards six indicted Croats from Bosnia and the Croatian people,” and public vigils were held to mourn him.
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