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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 September 2018

Bosnian Croat war criminal dies after taking 'poison' in court

High drama came to the UN court in The Hague on Wednesday after a convicted Croat war criminal died after swallowing what he said was poison seconds after a United Nations judge confirmed his 20-year sentence for involvement in crimes during the Bosnian war of the 1990s.

In a stunning end to the final case at the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), Slobodan Praljak yelled, "I am not a war criminal!" and appeared to drink from a small bottle he took from his pocket.

His lawyer than shouted out, " MY client says he has taken poison." Presiding judge Carmel Agius, who was clearly visibly shocked, immediately suspended the proceedings and an ambulance was called.

"OK, we suspend," the judge said, ordering the curtains to be closed and the glass used by Praljak to be kept as evidence.

Dutch police, an ambulance and a fire truck quickly arrived outside the court's headquarters and emergency service workers, some of them wearing helmets and with oxygen tanks on their backs, went into the court shortly after the incident. An ambulance later left the building, but it could not be confirmed if Praljak was inside.

Praljak's death was first reported on Croatian state television. More than an hour after the incident, a court guard said Praljak was still receiving treatment. He died shortly after.

The courtroom where the dramatic scene unfolded was sealed off and Presiding Judge Carmel Agius said that it was now a "crime scene" so that Dutch police could investigate. Police in The Hague declined to comment on the case.

Croatian state TV reported that President Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic had cut short an official visit to Iceland and the government was holding an emergency session.

Praljak, 72, had been in the tribunal's custody ahead of the hearing and it was not clear how he could have got access to poison or how he apparently managed to smuggle it into the tightly guarded courtroom.

Judge Agius had overturned some of Praljak's convictions but upheld others and left his sentence unchanged. Praljak, standing to listen to the judgment, then produced what appeared to be a small bottle, threw back his head and seemed to pour something into his mouth.

The hearing later resumed and, ultimately, all six Croats charged in the case had their sentences, ranging from 25 to 10 years, confirmed. Judges overturned some of their 2013 convictions, but left many unchanged.

The other suspects showed no emotion as the judge reconfirmed their sentences for their involvement in a campaign to drive Muslims out of a would-be Bosnian Croat ministate in Bosnia in the early 1990s.

Wednesday's hearing was the final case at the groundbreaking tribunal before it closes its doors next month. The tribunal, which last week convicted former Bosnian Serb military chief General Ratko Mladic of genocide and other crimes, was set up in 1993, while fighting still raged in the former Yugoslavia. It indicted 161 suspects and convicted 90 of them.

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The original trial began in April 2006 and provided a reminder of the complex web of ethnic tensions that fuelled fighting in Bosnia and continues to create frictions in the country even today.

The unprecedented scenes in The Hague came just after the judges also upheld a 25-year prison term against Jadranko Prlic, the former prime minister of a breakaway Bosnian Croat statelet, and a 20-year term for its former defence minister Bruno Stojic.

— Medics on scene —

Praljak was specifically charged with ordering the destruction of Mostar's 16th-century bridge in November 1993, which judges in the first trial had said "caused disproportionate damage to the Muslim civilian population."

The ruined Ottoman-era bridge became a symbol of Bosnia's devastation in the war. It was later rebuilt. but the city saw the worst of the clashes between Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Muslims — also called Bosniaks — with nearly 80 per cent of the eastern part of the city destroyed in the fighting.

But in their ruling, the judges in fact allowed part of Praljak's appeal, saying the bridge had been a legitimate military target during the conflict. They had also overturned some of his convictions, but refused to reduce his overall sentence.

The bloody 1992-1995 war in Bosnia, in which 100,000 people died and 2.2 million were displaced, mainly pitted Bosnian Muslims against Bosnian Serbs, but also saw some brutal fighting between Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats after an initial alliance fell apart.

— Massive crimes —

The bald and bespectacled Prlic, who once turned down a promising career in Washington as an economist, has vehemently denied the charges.

He told the court in March his trial represented "a dark side of international justice," insisting he "was not part of the chain of command" of the main Bosnian-Croat army in Bosnia, the HVO.

The prosecution had also appealed against the sentences, urging judges to impose 40-year terms on Prlic and three of his co-defendants, saying the "crimes were massive in scale".

Herceg-Bosna, the Bosnian-Croat statelet, backed by the government of Croatian nationalist leader Franjo Tudjman, was formally dismantled in 1996 as part of the peace deal that ended the war. But the "president" of Herceg-Bosna, Mate Boban, died in 1997 and Tudjman in 1999, leaving Prlic the highest-ranking Bosnian Croat official to face judgement for the crimes.

The ICTY charged Prlic and his co-defendants in 2004. The six surrendered as Croatia came under pressure to comply with the court in return for joining the European Union.

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