A war criminal’s deadly exit

Slobodan Praljak, the former Croatian general who used to direct films and plays and quote Dostoevsky and Chekhov before he joined army, made a dramatic and deadly exit as he took poison and died in a UN courtroom in The Hague last week. In the final act, after the presiding judge Carmel Agius upheld a 20-year jail sentence for his war crimes during the Bosnian conflict, Praljak said aloud in Croatian: “I’m not a criminal! I reject your judgement with contempt!” He took out the vial, raised it to the lips and tilting his head back drank poison. Praljak then announced he has taken poison. One of his lawyers repeated it in English. The judges, however, were clueless about the gravity of the situation.  Judge Agius even asked the next defendant to rise, and started reading the judgement until someone shouted for help as Prajlak slumped in his chair and began gasping for air. Within minutes, he was dead. Only after one hour, he was taken to a local hospital. Croatia’s justice minister has questioned the slow response of the medical team and the UN tribunal is going to investigate the incident. They need to examine how Praljak managed to smuggle the poison into the courtroom despite rigorous security checks.

Nobody could have saved Praljak as he had taken potassium cyanide, a highly toxic compound. He wanted to die rather than suffer the ignominy of being branded a war criminal. Hence he dissuaded his wife from coming to the court despite her entreaties. Praljak still believed he was innocent. He could not accept the harsh truth that war had made him blind to the horrors committed by Croat troops in Muslim villages. Praljak would not have participated in the ethnic cleansing but he could have prevented atrocities against innocent people with his timely intervention as a general. He surrendered 13 years ago to defend his “good name” in court. When he failed in this, he had to take his own life there. While doing so, he knew the impact his dramatic exit will have on thousands of people in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina watching the live broadcast of court proceedings. To many, including media, he suddenly became a Croatian hero. On the other hand, it is sad that the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia had to end its 25 years of work with such a shocking scandal.