A Croatian war criminal’s shocking (but, sadly, not surprising) public suicide

Bosnian Muslim civilians being herded down mountain roads towards a detention centre under guard of the Croatian Defence Council, 11 May 1993 (Exhibit P2313, Prosecutor v Jadranko Prlic, et al).

I helped prosecute the case against Gen. Slobodan Praljak, the convicted war criminal who killed himself late last month in the main courtroom of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). To anybody familiar with the case, Praljak’s public suicide was shocking but not altogether surprising. For the lawyers, witnesses and judges in his case, Praljak’s seven-year trial and four-year appeal were about fact-finding and assessing guilt. To Praljak, an ex-director of films and plays, the proceedings seemed to be an elaborate dramatic production with him at its centre. As we consider Praljak’s final, tragic performance — and hear his supporters clamour for his martyrdom — let us also remind ourselves of his crimes and of the divided country he leaves behind.

A tiny vial of poison quaffed dramatically on TV cannot erase what 12 years of trials and appeals in Praljak’s case tells us: Over a period of 18 months in 1992 and 1993, Praljak and his fellow convicted criminals unleashed a persecutory reign of terror, rape, plunder, deportation and destruction aimed at expelling all Bosnian Muslims from their homes in Herzegovina and Central Bosnia. Praljak and his men also laid vicious siege to the Bosnian Muslim parts of Mostar. As the world watched, Bosnian Muslim men, women and children were starved of food, water and medical supplies as Praljak’s forces subjected them to the near-constant threat of shelling and sniping.

Thousands of Bosnian Muslims — who had lived in these areas for centuries, just like the Bosnian Croats — were killed, raped, tortured and expelled.

For these acts, Praljak was convicted of:

four counts of Crimes Against Humanity (persecutions, murder, deportation, inhumane acts);

five counts of war crimes (unlawful labour, destruction or wilful damage to institutions dedicated to religion or education, plunder, unlawful attacks on civilians, and unlawfully inflicting terror on civilians); and

five counts of Grave Breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 (unlawful killing, inhuman treatment extensive destruction and appropriation of property not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly, and appropriation of property).

There can no longer be any real doubt that Praljak was guilty of these atrocities. His convictions resulted from a trial that, though not without its issues, met international standards of fairness and transparency and that afforded Praljak every opportunity to challenge his accusers and defend himself. Praljak called 19 witnesses in his defence, and he and his co-defendants offered 4,913 exhibits into evidence. Praljak called himself as his first witness, seizing the chance to testify in his own defence for 55 days in May, June July, August and September 2009.

After his trial, Praljak brought 45 grounds of appeal to challenge his convictions. He robustly argued his case in hundreds of pages of legal filings and during a week-long oral hearing. He had competent lawyers of his choice representing him at both trial and on appeal. In the end, he got away with a sentence (20 years) that is shorter than that given to most American criminals convicted of even a single murder. He would likely have been freed in a few short years, thanks to the ICTY’s traditional ‘two-thirds’ rule.

What Praljak really seemed to care about most was using the trial and appeal as a stage for his own personal production starring Slobodan Praljak.

Throughout the proceedings, though, the actual question of Praljak’s guilt or innocence almost seemed incidental to him. What Praljak really seemed to care about most was using the trial and appeal as a stage for his own personal production starring Slobodan Praljak. Praljak — who testified that he had directed 20 plays, two films and one television series before the war — was famous for his self-aggrandising quips and outbursts during trial, seemingly designed more for laughs than litigation strategy. Praljak liked to screen for the judges short movies that he wrote, directed and produced. I remember one in which Praljak, in full general mode, stood before a line of quivering troops and barked orders at them. He angrily commanded them to undress, which they did feverishly and with much humiliation. These movies were full of overacting and big speeches, poor production values and dialogue that sounded forced even to those not fluent in Croatian.

But all of Praljak’s films ended in the same way: with Praljak as the hero, revelling in and promulgating his own reality. Never mind the hours of live testimony from victims sitting just meters away from him in the witness chair, the videos played for the judges depicting the awful conditions in Mostar, the reams of documents proving both his guilt and depravity of his crimes. All of this apparently washed over Praljak, leaving no trace of understanding, shame, empathy or regret. Right up to the end, Praljak denied the very notion of Croat culpability in the destruction of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Apparently unable to live in an increasingly difficult-to-deny reality, Praljak chose instead to die the ‘hero’ of his own production. His performance made sure his was the loudest voice on a day when the world’s attention should instead have been focussed on his victims.

Praljak’s flawed ‘martyrdom’ also illustrates and exacerbates the depths of the divisions that remain in Bosnia and Herzegovina. More than 20 years after the war there ended, the former warring factions — comprised of peoples with no real historic tradition of violent intolerance — remain so divided that a generation of their children have been taught by different teachers and learned diametrically opposed versions of the same war, sometimes under the same roof. The town Praljak and his fellow criminals besieged, Mostar, is now so divided that it has water plants, hospitals, colleges and energy companies specific to Croats or Bosnian Muslims.

Ultimately, Praljak died with the label eight international judges found he deserved after weighing mountains of evidence over 12 years of proceedings: convicted war criminal. His death, like all suicides, was tragic and pointless. We should pray for his soul, and that the family he left behind can somehow find comfort and peace in the wake of such a shock. But while we’re at it, we should also make time to remember Praljak’s victims, and to pray for the peace and unity of the beautiful and broken place he left behind.

Seattle lawyer Kyle Wood was a trial and appellate lawyer for the Office of the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia from 2005–2015.

Attorney focusing on human trafficking and crimes of mass atrocity.