The horrifying story behind the Bosnian War general who died after drinking poison in a war-crimes trial

  • Slobodan Praljak, a former Bosnian Croat general, drank poison from a bottle during a war-crimes tribunal on Wednesday.
  • He died a few hours later in a Dutch hospital.
  • Praljak’s charges centered on the rape, murder, and ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims.

“Slobodan Praljak is not a war criminal! I reject your judgment with contempt!”

These were some of the final words spoken by Slobodan Praljak at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague, Netherlands, on Wednesday.

After making his statement, Praljak drank poison from a bottle, and he died a few hours later in a Dutch hospital.

Praljak was convicted of crimes against humanity and war crimes in 2013 and sentenced to 20 years in prison, nearly half of which had already been served after he surrendered to the tribunal in 2004. His 2017 trial was an appeal that eventually reaffirmed his sentence, though some parts of his conviction were overturned.

Many of the charges centered on the rape, murder, and ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims, with Praljak serving at high levels for Croatian forces during the Bosnian War in the 1990s.

Praljak had not always been a soldier. An ethnic Croat born in Bosnia and Herzegovina, then part of Yugoslavia, he was a trained electrical engineer who worked as a theatre director in the Croatian and Bosnian cities of Zagreb and Mostar.

In 1991, as Croatia declared its independence from Yugoslavia, Praljak joined the newly formed Croatian Army. As a Bosnian Croat, he was chosen by the Croatian leadership to become one of the leaders of the Croatian Defence Council, the military leadership of the self-declared Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia during the Bosnian War.

He oversaw the Siege of Mostar, one of the bloodiest battles of the Yugoslav wars in one of Bosnia’s most diverse cities. Thousands of Croats, Serbs, and Muslims were killed, and the city’s 16th-century Old Bridge was destroyed.

The Hague tribunal found that Praljak was guilty of ethnic cleansing and mass murder against the Muslim citizens of southern Bosnia (also called Bosniaks).

The Muslim Bosnians had previously fought alongside Praljak and his soldiers against Bosnian Serbs, who were trying to take control of Bosnia and join Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic’s “Greater Serbia.”

The Serbs and the Croats had come to an agreement to divide Bosnia between the two of them. Just a short time later, the Croats, led by President Franjo Tudman, would drive out the remaining Serbs in their country in another episode of the numerous ethnic-cleansing actions that happened in the Balkans as Yugoslavia disintegrated.

When asked about the crimes committed, Praljak said in a 1995 BBC documentary that he had tried to avoid a situation that Croatia would be “ashamed of.”

“Our boys had been massacred. That’s why this mistake happened,” Praljak told the BBC. “At such moments the blood boils and you go mad. Later you are ashamed, both as a man and a Croat.”

Praljak’s sentence was not increased as a result of the appeal sentencing, as prosecutors had wanted.

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