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Slobodan Praljak: a war criminal, not a hero

Photo: ICTY

Last Wednesday, on November 29, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) upheld the sentences for six former senior leaders of the Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia (HRHB) and the Croatian Defence Council (HVO), handing them a total of 111 years in prison for their participation in a joint criminal enterprise led by then leadership of Croatia. Slobodan Praljak, the chief of the Main Headquarters of the HVO, upon hearing that his 20-year prison sentence had been upheld, started shouting at the presiding judge: "Judges, Slobodan Praljak is not a war criminal, I reject your verdict with disdain!" (he habitually referred to himself in the third person). He then drank what he said was poison, leading the presiding judge Carmel Agius to suspend the hearings and call for a doctor. ICTY medical staff transported Praljak to nearby HMC Hospitall, and he died a few hours later.

Negationism and divinization

Shortly after the verdict announcement and news of his death made the headlines, Praljak immediately became "unfairly convicted heroic martyr" in the eyes of the Croatian public, the state-owned media, many high-ranking politicians and the Catholic clergy. Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković offered his condolences to Praljak's family and said: "His act, which we regrettably saw today, mostly speaks about a deep moral injustice towards six Croats from Bosnia and the Croatian people... We voice dissatisfaction and regret about the verdict." He further added that "Many citations from the verdict fail to respect historical truth and facts, they are unjust and politically unacceptable." After foreign media described him as the first head of an EU government in support of a convicted war criminal, five days later Plenković revised his statement and said Croatia accepts verdict by the Hague Tribunal, finally expressing regrets for victims of the war. When journalists asked him why he changed his stance, Plenković claimed that the media had misinterpreted his words.

Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, Croatian President and another HDZ member, followed similar approach in futile balancing her rhetoric to a global, regional, and domestic audience. She returned to Zagreb having cut short a trip to Iceland, and 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." Despite the fact that there are five verdicts for Croatia's aggression on Bosnia and Herzegovina, accusing even the first President of Croatia Franjo Tuđman (also the founder of the conservative Croatian Democratic Union or HDZ), she repeatedly insisted Croatia was "not an aggressor" at all and claimed everything revolved around "protecting the Croatian people and resisting Greater Serbian aggression." Her final step of right-wing populism was victim-blaming, accusing Bosnian public of applying the verdict as a collective guilt of all Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In reality, an overwhelming majority of Bosnian Croats expressed their solidarity with a war criminal.

Praljak's crimes

Together with his five co-conspirators, Praljak was convicted of implementing an entire system of forced deportation of Bosniak Muslim population from the Herzeg-Bosna entity. This system included detention in concentration camps, murder, torture, infliction of terror on civilians and the use of detainees as slave labor and as human shields. The camp at Dretelj was particularly heinous, where Bosniak prisoners were subject to starvation, constant beatings and humiliation, and were at times forced to beat each other.

The Croatian military forces of which Praljak was the leader also carried out wanton physical destruction, including the demolition of the iconic 16th century bridge over the Neretva river in Mostar, which the ICTY found was done to demoralize and isolate the Bosniak population. More broadly, the Praljak conviction included the court finding that the state of Croatia, under the leadership of president Franjo Tuđman, carried out a joint criminal enterprise with the leadership of Herzeg-Bosna to commit acts of terror.

Bizarre apologetics

Arguments against the ICTY verdict and for Praljak's innocence, offered by several nationalist opinion-makers, are quite inconsistent and illogical. Those include questioning of the very legitimacy of the tribunal, the assertions that he didn't feel guilty, he couldn't be anti-Muslim because he married a Muslim woman, and he couldn't be a war criminal because he was a highly respected intellectual.

Starting with the first one, the ICTY as a body of the United Nations was established by Resolution 827, and Croatia was one of its founders. The Dayton Accords, which Franjo Tuđman had signed on Croatia's behalf, included a pledge of full cooperation with the ICTY. Only a week before allegedly "unjust" verdict against Praljak and five other Bosnian Croats, Croatian politicians and public were praising the ICTY verdict of a life sentence given against Ratko Mladić, a Bosnian Serb former military leader during the Bosnian War. Like Praljak, Mladić was also convinced of his own innocence, so ICTY judges received emotional outbursts from both of them.

Some Croatian nationalists compared Praljak's theatrical suicide with the Trial of Socrates, a famous Greek philosopher who also drank poison after being unjustifiably convinced, but others have found far better comparisons – Heinrich Himmler and Hermann Goering, two Nazi war criminals who also poisoned themselves to avoid justice. Praljak is not even the first "heroic" defendant to die in ICTY custody at The Hague. The former Croatian Serb leader Milan Babić killed himself at the nearby Scheveningen detention centre in 2006, and another Croatian Serb, Slavko Dokmanović, was found hanging from the door of his cell in 1998.

We should bear in mind that radical Croatian nationalists have a long tradition of turning highly controversial figures into heroes and martyrs. One of the most popular case is death of Jure Francetić, notorious Ustaša commander responsible for the massacre of Bosnian Serbs and Jews, who allegedly killed himself after he was captured by Partisans (he actually died of wounds after his aircraft crash-landed), and the most recent example would be Zvonko Bušić, a far-right terrorist, TWA Flight 355 hijacker and bomber of New York's Grand Central Terminal, who committed suicide by gunshot in 2013.

Furthermore, whitewashing on a basis of spouse's origin is also already seen, as it was claimed the Independent State of Croatia (NDH), a fascist Nazi puppet regime responsible for murdering tens of thousands of Jews, was "not antisemitic" simply because wife of its dictator Ante Pavelić was of Jewish origin. Kaćuša, wife of Slobodan Praljak, was indeed born in a Muslim family, but she was not a practical Muslim and earlier she has been married to Goran Babić, a staunch and devoted Yugoslav Communist (later turned into a Serbian nationalist).

Since Praljak was a graduate with three university degrees and an author of 25 works, he has been praised as high-level intellectual incapable of committing any wrongdoing in the war. This is distraction and sheer innuendo. Some other people indicted by the ICTY have even more impressive civil careers, i.e. Vojislav Šešelj, the youngest student ever to earn a Ph.D. in Yugoslavia. Radovan Karadžić, a Bosnian Serb former politician sentenced to 40 years' imprisonment, was also a psychiatrist trained at the most prestigious American universities, and an award-winning poet.

If pre-war civil careers represent the determining factor for respective war activities, Ante Gotovina (celebrated as the greatest hero in the Croatian War for Independence) would face the biggest problem, considering his criminal career of robber in France. After the war Praljak became a businessman and multimillionaire, not owing to his degrees but political connections, like many other Croatian war profiteers including plumber Ivan Čermak, central heating installer Ivan Korade, bus driver Ljubo Ćesić Rojs, etc. Praljak profited from war, and tried to posthumously profit from a trial.

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.