Shades of Nuremberg? Convicted war criminal Slobodan Praljak, the Bosnian Croat minister of defense during the Balkans wars, decided to cheat the hangman — or at least the jailer. After having his conviction and 20-year sentence upheld by The Hague, Praljak took a swig from a bottle and announced that he’d just taken poison. The court hastily adjourned while paramedics were called, but to little avail:
The final hearing at a United Nations war crimes tribunal was dramatically halted Wednesday when a former Bosnian Croat military chief claimed to have taken poison.
Slobodan Praljak yelled, “I am not a war criminal!” and appeared to drink from a small bottle, seconds after judges reconfirmed his 20-year prison sentence for involvement in a campaign to drive Muslims out of a would-be Bosnian Croat ministate in Bosnia in the early 1990s. …
Slobodan Praljak, 72, tilted back his head and took a gulp from a flask or glass as the judge read out the verdict.
“I just drank poison,” he said. “I am not a war criminal. I oppose this conviction.”
Turns out Praljak wasn’t kidding around:
#BREAKING Bosnian Croat Praljak dead after taking poison: state-run news agency
— AFP news agency (@AFP) November 29, 2017
In one way, this dramatic exit seems suitable for Praljak, who started off his professional life in the theater and television. Only as Yugoslavia began spinning apart did Praljak join the Croatian military and shortly became a general as well as a political leader. The UN tribunal had charged he and five others with joint responsibility for a number of war crimes against Bosnian Muslims during this period, primarily for their actions in support of “ethnic cleansing,” recognized as a form of genocide:
From on or before 18 November 1991 to about April 1994 and thereafter, various persons established and participated in a joint criminal enterprise to politically and militarily subjugate, permanently remove and ethnically cleanse Bosnian Muslims and other non-Croats who lived in areas on the territory of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina which were claimed to be part of the Croatian Community (and later Republic) of Herceg-Bosna, and to join these areas as part of a “Greater Croatia,” whether in the short-term or over time and whether as part of the Republic of Croatia or in close association with it, by force, fear or threat of force, persecution, imprisonment and detention, forcible transfer and deportation, appropriation and destruction of property and other means, which constituted or involved the commission of crimes which are punishable under Articles 2, 3, and 5 of the Tribunal Statute. The territorial ambition of the joint criminal enterprise was to establish a Croatian territory with the borders of the Croatian Banovina, a territorial entity that existed from 1939 to 1941. It was part of the joint criminal enterprise to engineer the political and ethnic map of these areas so that they would be Croat-dominated, both politically and demographically. …
Each of the accused — JADRANKO PRLIC, BRUNO STOJIC, SLOBODAN PRALJAK, MILIVOJ PETKOVIC, VALENTIN CORIC and BERISLAV PUSIC — acting individually and through the positions and powers described above, and in concert with other members of the joint criminal enterprise, participated as leaders in the joint criminal enterprise in one or more of the following ways …
By the foregoing acts, conduct, practices and omissions and as further described in Paragraphs 15-17, 39 and 218-230, JADRANKO PRLIC, BRUNO STOJIC, SLOBODAN PRALJAK, MILIVOJ PETKOVIC and VALENTIN CORIC are responsible for the following crimes: persecutions, as charged in Count 1; murder (Count 2); wilful killing (Count 3); inhumane acts (forcible transfer) (Count 8); unlawful transfer of a civilian (Count 9); imprisonment (Count 10); unlawful confinement of a civilian (Count 11); inhumane acts (conditions of confinement) (Count 12); inhuman treatment (conditions of confinement) (Count 13); cruel treatment (conditions of confinement) (Count 14); inhumane acts (Count 15); inhuman treatment (Count 16); cruel treatment (Count 17); extensive destruction of property (Count 19); wanton destruction (Count 20); destruction or wilful damage to institutions dedicated to religion or education (Count 21); appropriation of property (Count 22); and plunder (Count 23).
Twenty years seems like a light sentence for convictions of this breadth, but Praljak was already 72 years old. Even if he got some clemency down the road, he was much more likely to die in prison, and he knew it. Rather than submit to that — a death much more humane than Praljak and his cohort allowed their victims — he took the cheap way out.
Given the historical founding of these war-crimes tribunals on the Nuremberg trials after World War II, this exit has no small amount of irony. Hermann Goering committed suicide in a similar manner rather than face the hangman, although Goering was clever enough to take his poison in his cell where the opportunity was more secure. Nuremberg exposed Goering and the other Nazis as cowards, but Goering more than most in the end. Praljak will probably only ever get remembered for this dramatic flourish, but his record of inhumanity will follow shortly behind it.
It might surprise some to find out that the ICTY remains in operation nearly 20 years after the end of the Balkan Wars. It has almost finished its work, with this appeal being one of the last cases still left on its docket. Last week, it convicted Ratko Mladic of war crimes and issued a life sentence to the former Bosnian Serb commander, one of the most notorious of the war criminals from that era. It still has an appeal to consider from Radovan Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb commander and political leader. At that point, unless more war criminals are produced, its work will be over, but they may have some explaining to do about their security after Praljak’s public suicide today.