Slobodan Praljak, 72, a former wartime leader, was seen drinking from a small container as he heard the verdict of his appeal hearing. The man’s defense lawyer then told the court that the accused had “taken poison.” The presiding judge stopped the proceedings and ordered a doctor to be called, Reuters reports.
Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic confirmed Praljack’s death in a press conference Wednesday, adding that “we have all unfortunately witnessed his act by which he took his own life.”
A UN judge who later called the site a “crime scene” said that Dutch police are investigating the incident.
Prior to drinking the substance, Praljak had heard that his 20-year sentence for alleged war crimes in the Bosnian city of Mostar was being upheld. Praljak, who was one of six former Bosnian Croats having their appeal heard at the UN tribunal, is reported to have told the judge that he is not “a war criminal.”
He was accused of ordering the destruction of Mostar’s 16th-century bridge in November 1993, an act that, judges said, “caused disproportionate damage to the Muslim civilian population.” All of Praljak’s fellow defendants were convicted in 2013 of the persecution and murder of Muslims during the Bosnian war.
A live broadcast from inside the court was cut off shortly after Praljak’s pronouncement. Reports suggest the judge asked that Praljak’s glass be preserved as evidence.
A court spokesperson told the media on Wednesday that Praljak was rushed to a nearby hospital, where he died.
Last week, the same tribunal handed former Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic a life sentence on 10 charges over his role in the Balkan Wars in the 1990s, including genocide. He had pleaded not guilty on all counts.
Questions have been raised over the fairness of the international prosecution of crimes committed during the Balkan Wars. Of the 161 individuals indicted by the ICTY, the body created specifically to prosecute wartime crimes, 94 are ethnic Serbs, compared to 29 Croats, nine Albanians and nine Bosniaks.
Two years ago, Russia used its UN veto right to block a resolution on the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica tragedy, saying that the draft document depicted the Serbian people as the sole guilty party in the complex armed conflict in Yugoslavia.
In 2006, former Serb president and president of Yugoslavia Slobodan Milosevic was found dead in his cell at The Hague detention center. His death came just one month after the tribunal had rejected a request by Milosevic to obtain medical treatment in Russia. According to pathologists, the cause of death was a heart attack.
Meanwhile, the former head of Slobodan Milosevic’s defence team, Serbian lawyer Toma Fila, said it was “absolutely possible” to bring poison into the court in the Hague.
Fila told AP that security was like an airport. “They inspect metal objects, like belts, metal money, shoes, and take away mobile phones,” he said, adding that pills and small amounts of liquid would not be noticed.