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30 Nov 2017

Bosnian Croat war crimes convict dies after taking 'poison' in U.N. court

THE HAGUE (Reuters) - A former Bosnian Croat military commander swallowed what he said was poison in a U.N. war crimes courtroom on Wednesday and died shortly after losing an appeal against his 20-year prison term.

Slobodan Praljak’s apparent courtroom suicide, which was broadcast on a video feed, came in the final minutes of the last judgment at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, which closes next month after 24 years.

The white-bearded Praljak, 72, was taken to hospital after drinking from a flask or glass as an ICTY judge read out appeals rulings against him and five other convicted Bosnian Croat war criminals, tribunal spokesman Nenad Golcevski said.

“I just drank poison,” the ex-general told the stunned court. “I am not a war criminal. I oppose this conviction.” After gulping down the drink, he sat back down and slumped in his chair, said a lawyer who was in the courtroom at the time.

“Praljak drank a liquid in court and quickly fell ill,” Golcevski said. He was treated by tribunal medical staff, but “passed away today at the HMC hospital in The Hague”, he said.

Presiding Judge Carmel Agius hastily suspended the hearings and the courtroom was declared a crime scene by Dutch authorities. As a forensic investigation got under way, the chamber was sealed off and the public told to leave.

“Don’t take away the glass!” Agius said, instructing the guards to lower blinds and block a glass-partition separating the court from the public.

In the chaotic moments that followed, guards and paramedics raced in and out of the courtroom, and ambulances sped away.

Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic, whose country was the patron of separatist Croat forces in Bosnia’s 1992-95 war, said he regretted Praljak’s death and offered condolences to his family. “His act tells the most about deep ethical injustice toward the six Bosnian Croats and the Croatian people.”

The ICTY upheld on appeal Praljak’s conviction on charges of crimes against humanity over persecution, murders and expulsions of Bosnian Muslims from territory captured by nationalist Bosnian Croats and the brutal imprisonment of 1,000 Muslims.

A reading of the judgment, which was also ruling on appeals against convictions and sentences against five other Bosnian Croat convicts, resumed more than two hours after Praljak drank the apparent poison.

“DIVIDED COUNTRY”

The incident upstaged the appeals rulings, which were important for Croatia - it suspended a session of parliament so lawmakers could follow the hearing.

In the southern Bosnian town of Mostar, where Bosnian Croats and Muslims fought each other in the war and now co-exist in an uneasy peace, cafes closed to avoid incidents.

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