By Stephanie van den Berg
It was supposed to be a predictable appeals verdict in the case of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia against six Bosnian Croat officials. Important. But not one of the tribunal’s highest-profile cases. And made special to a degree because it was the last verdict the ICTY would ever pronounce.
I went with a feeling of nostalgia; the end of an era for me, as the tribunal I spent so much time covering was really closing. I spent so much time in the marbled lobby of the court covering cases which included the first conviction for genocide on European soil for Bosnian Serb general Radislav Kristic and the lengthy and unpredictable trial of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic.
The blog I’d prepared about the tribunal’s last cases: the life sentence for Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic last week and Wednesday’s appeal in the Prlic case, was going to be called “No Alarms and No Surprises” and focus on how both cases largely confirmed events that had already been proven before the ICTY and would not contribute greatly to the legacy and the jurisprudence of the court.
But then at a little after 11:30 am just after judges read out a verdict confirming his 20-year sentence for crimes against Muslims in and around Mostar, 72-year-old Slobodan Praljak, stood up to tell the court: “Slobodan Praljak is not a war criminal, I reject the verdict of this court”.
In images that now have been broadcast the world over, we saw him reaching into his breast pocket and taking out a glass container and gulping it down, before slumping back in his chair. “I took poison,” he told the court, which then quickly lowered the blinds between the courtroom and the public gallery and summoned an ambulance.
After a few moments of disbelief and wondering if this was a theatrical gesture, I got into breaking news mode and spent the rest of the day gathering every bit of information I could for the agency. Then around 5pm, the tribunal confirmed Praljak had died in hospital. Dutch authorities asked to investigate the incident said preliminary tests showed he was killed after drinking a deadly substance.
I was stunned that after 24 years, the ICTY would end in this, a dramatic courtroom suicide that would be all the world media would remember of the last days of the tribunal. But in a way I realized it was also a fitting ending. It shows that despite the court’s extensive verdict and its efforts to establish a historical record of what happened, denial and division are still rife in the Balkans region on all sides.
The Prlic et al case that Praljak was a part of had become highly politicized. Although the convictions were for Bosnian Croats for crimes they committed in Bosnia during the 1992-95 war, the initial verdict had concluded the men were all part of a joint criminal enterprise with wartime Croatian leader Franjo Tudjman aimed at ethnically cleansing Bosnian Muslims from Croat-claimed parts of Bosnia. Zagreb wanted that finding, which clearly links it to atrocities in Bosnia overturned, so they can maintain they had ‘clean hands’ in the bloody Bosnian conflict. Instead, the appeals chamber confirmed it and in Croatia, Praljak is being cast as a hero by some because he would rather die than live with the judgement. “(Praljak) did not want to live with such a verdict,” read a headline in the wide-selling Jutarnji List daily.
In Serbia the tabloid Informer simply headlined “Croatian Ustasha kills himself in The Hague court”. Ustasha means Croatian fascist, and using that term is deliberate.
After 24 years we can conclude that those who urged the founding of the tribunal were naïve in thinking it could lead to reconciliation. But all the ICTY’s cases and verdicts have made it much harder to deny that atrocities did happen and have shown that committing atrocities have consequences. The fact that Praljak would take his own life in such a dramatic gesture also shows what a powerful institution the court had become. Simply getting up and denouncing it or insisting it is biased would have not overshadowed the findings in the verdict. Only death could cement Praljak’s martyred status.
Stephanie van den Berg is the Editor-in-chief of the International Justice Tribune.
Photo: ICTY live stream screenshot