Praljak's theatrical suicide after ICTY confirms verdicts against six Bosnian Croats

Photo: ICTY

The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) on Wednesday upheld the sentences for all six former senior leaders of the Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia (HRHB) and the Croatian Defence Council (HVO), accused in the 'Prlić et al' case, handing them a total of 111 years in prison for their participation in a joint criminal enterprise led by then Croatia's leadership.

The HRHB lasted from 1991 to 1996 as an unrecognized entity in the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina, declared unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina in September 1992, but still financially and militarily supported by the Republic of Croatia, especially during the Croat–Bosniak War that lasted from October 1992 to February 1994.

Under the first-instance verdict in May 2013, the ICTY sentenced Jadranko Prlić (wartime prime minister of the HRHB) to 25 years in prison, while Bruno Stojić (HRHB's defence minister), Slobodan Praljak (the chief of the Main Headquarters of the HVO) and Milivoje Petković (the HVO's deputy commander) were given 20 years each. Valentin Ćorić, the former commander of the HVO military police, was sentenced to 16 years, while the president of HRHB's Commission for the Exchange of Prisoners, Berislav Pušić, got 10 years in prison.

The majority of Trial Chamber's, with the presiding judge Jean-Claude Antonetti dissenting, ruled that they took part in a joint criminal enterprise aimed at establishing "a Croatian entity, whose borders would partially follow the borders of the Croatian republic from 1939 [the Banovina of Croatia]" through the forcible and permanent deportation of the Bosniak population from eight municipalities in Bosnia and Herzegovina: Mostar, Čapljina, Ljubuški, Prozor, Stolac, Vareš, Gornji Vakuf and Jablanica. All of them except Praljak expressed regrets for victims of the war, but insisted that Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina had to "defend themselves from a Serb and Bosniak aggression."

Six war criminals filed appeals in June 2013, and during a hearing on their appeals in March this year, they asked the court to acquit them of all the charges or reduce their sentences, and denied the existence of a joint criminal enterprise against Bosnian Muslims. For a long time, Croatia also argued that it had no involvement in war crimes in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Still, the first-instance verdict accused some of Zagreb's highest wartime officials, including the first President of Croatia Franjo Tuđman, of being complicit in the six men's offences.

The prosecution in meanwhile attempted to convince the judges to almost double the sentences, which amounted to a total of 111 years in the original verdict. The UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague nevertheless rejected all appeals and upheld most of the original charges. Wednesday's reading of the appellate verdict in the case against six defendants was the last verdict issued by the ICTY, before it closes its doors next month.

Theatrical suicide

Last Wednesday will be remembered for the court's very important confirmation that the leadership of Croatia engaged in a joint criminal enterprise to commit mass atrocity in Bosnia, but also for the televised suicide of one of the defendants, Slobodan Praljak. Upon hearing that his 20-year prison sentence had been upheld, referring to himself in the third person, Praljak shouted at the presiding judge: "Judges, Slobodan Praljak is not a war criminal, I reject your verdict with disdain." A second later, he drank from a small bottle and later declared: "What I am drinking now is poison." The judge suspended the hearing and called for a doctor, medical staff transported him to nearby hospital, and he died a few hours later. It is difficult to understand how this was allowed to happen at all at a high-profile UN court.

Immediately after announcement of the jury and news about suicide, the war criminals gained status of "unfairly convicted heroes," while Praljak was described as a "brave martyr." This disgusting praise and judicial negationism did not only come from ordinary people, but also from high-ranking politicians, journalists of Croatian Radiotelevision (HRT), and Croatian Catholic clergy from Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković used Praljak's death to talk about the "deep moral injustice" of the verdict, and Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, who returned to Zagreb having cut short a trip to Iceland, spoke of Praljak as "a man who preferred to give his life, rather than to live, having been convicted of crimes he firmly believed he had not committed. His act struck deeply at the heart of Croats and left the ICTY with the weight of eternal doubt about the accomplishment of its tasks."

Branimir Farkaš, HRT's correspondent in The Hague, talked about "expressing condolences to Praljak's family," but victims of Praljak's orders did not receive the same treatment and were virtually ignored on the state-owned television. Other Croatian TV-journalists described Praljak as a "hero" and used such tag in their tweets. Catholic churches in several cities across Praljak's native Herzegovina held church services, and instead of praying for victims of war, people prayed for responsible war criminals. However, in an open message signed by Bosnian Cardinal Vinko Puljić, Banja Luka's Bishop Franjo Komarica, Mostar-Duvno's Bishop Ratko Perić, Military Bishop Tomo Vukšić and others, the leading Catholic clergy expressed regret over all victims of war, and refrained from commenting on the ICTY's verdicts.

Marko Knežević

Marko Knežević is a historian and freelance journalist from Bar, Montenegro. He is a frequent traveller to the Middle East and East Asia.