War criminal dies after ‘drinking poison’ at UN tribunal

Former Bosnian Croat commander Slobodan Praljak drank from flask when sentence upheld

Former Bosnian Croat commander Slobodan Praljak died on Wednesday after he “drank poison” seconds after UN appeals judges upheld his 20-year sentence for war crimes against Bosnian Muslims. Video: Reuters

Former Bosnian Croat general Slobodan Praljak died on Wednesday after appearing to take poison in the courtroom of the United Nations tribunal in The Hague, as the final hearing in its controversial 24-year history ended in extraordinary scenes.

Moments after the presiding judge rejected Gen Praljak’s appeal against a 20-year sentence for committing war crimes during Bosnia’s 1992-1995 war, he shouted: “Listen, Slobodan Praljak is not a war criminal. I reject your judgment.”

He then threw back his head and seemed to drink the contents of a small glass bottle, as the presiding judge and lawyers looked on in bewilderment.

The judge asked another defendant to stand and began reading the verdict of his appeal, before Gen Praljak (72) said: “I have taken poison.”


The hearing was suspended and medics were called to attend to Gen Praljak. He was a producer in theatre, film and television before joining Croatia’s military at the start of its war of independence from Yugoslavia and later leading ethnic Croat forces in Bosnia.

Several hours later Croatian officials announced the death of Gen Praljak, and the country’s president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic announced she was returning early from a visit to Iceland.

Croatian prime minister Andrej Plenkovic told reporters in Zagreb that “we have all unfortunately witnessed his act by which he took his own life”.

“I personally want to express deepest condolences to the family of Gen Praljak, whose act speaks above all of the deep moral injustice done to the six [convicted men],” Mr Plenkovic added.

The court upheld the 2011 convictions of Gen Praljak and five other former Bosnian Croat politicians and military officers, for subjecting Bosnian Muslims to ethnic cleansing and other crimes against humanity including murder and rape.


It also confirmed sentences of more than 100 years in total for Gen Praljak, Jadranko Prlic, Bruno Stojic, Milivoj Petkovic, Valentin Coric and Berislav Pusic.

They were all senior figures in Herceg-Bosna, an unrecognised Bosnian Croat region whose troops initially sided with Bosnian Muslims in their battle with the Belgrade-controlled Yugoslav army and Bosnian Serb forces.

From late 1992 to early 1994, however, Bosnia’s Croats and Muslims also clashed with each other, in fighting that claimed several thousand lives.

The historic city of Mostar was the epicentre of this “war within a war”, and it became divided along ethnic lines and witnessed the destruction of its famous 16th-century Ottoman bridge, which Croat tank shells sent plunging into the Neretva river.

In another important finding for the history of the Yugoslav wars, the court also confirmed its earlier ruling that Croatia, under then president Franjo Tudjman, had a high degree of control over the political and military forces of Herceg-Bosna – something Zagreb has always denied.

The UN court will close next month after handing down 83 convictions related to 161 indictments. Its final first instance case ended last week, with former Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic being sentenced to life in jail for genocide and other war crimes.

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin is a contributor to The Irish Times from central and eastern Europe