A former Bosnian Croat general has died after drinking a phial of poison while standing in the dock at a UN tribunal in The Hague, where his war crimes sentence of 20 years was upheld.
Seconds after the judges had delivered their decision at the international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) on Wednesday, Slobodan Praljak shouted out angrily: “Praljak is not a criminal. I reject your verdict.”
The 72-year-old then raised a small brown bottle to his lips, and drank it in full view of the cameras filming the hearing. “I just drank poison,” he said. “I am not a war criminal. I oppose this conviction.”
As court officials surrounded the white-haired and bearded Praljak, the presiding judge, Carmel Agius, immediately ordered the proceedings to be suspended. The curtains screening the courtroom were abruptly closed to the public.
Within minutes, an ambulance arrived outside the tribunal, while a helicopter hovered overhead. Praljak was taken to hospital but officially declared dead a few hours later.
An investigation is likely to be launched into who supplied him with the poison and how he could have smuggled the bottle into court through what should have been strict security at the longest-running war crimes tribunal in The Hague.
An official statement from the ICTY said: “Mr Slobodan Praljak, one of six defence appellants in the Prlić et al case, passed away today in HMC hospital in The Hague.
“During the public pronouncement of the appeal judgment the appeals chamber confirmed his conviction and affirmed Mr Praljak’s sentence of 20 years of imprisonment. Immediately thereafter, Mr Praljak drank a liquid while in court, and quickly fell ill.
“Mr Praljak was immediately assisted by the ICTY medical staff. Simultaneously an ambulance was summoned. Mr Praljak was transported to a nearby hospital to receive further medical assistance where he passed away.
“In accordance with standard procedures, at the request of the ICTY, the Dutch authorities have initiated an independent investigation which is currently ongoing. The tribunal has extended its condolences to the next of kin.”
The Croatian prime minister, Andrej Plenković, had earlier confirmed Praljak’s death after it was initially reported on Croatian state TV and offered his condolences to the family.
Plenković 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.”
Dutch police have declared the courtroom a crime scene.