Croats shocked by 'poison' death of war criminal Slobodan Praljak, mourn his 'sacrifice'

Bosnian Croats and residents of Mostar, light candles in in tribute to General Slobodan Praljak, on Nov 29, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

ZAGREB (AFP) - Croats on Wednesday expressed shock and paid tribute to war criminal Slobodan Praljak, who died after appearing to drink poison at court in The Hague as UN judges upheld his 20-year sentence.

The dramatic turn of events came as judges were ruling on the appeals of six former Bosnian Croat political and military leaders over their roles in the 1990s Bosnian war. All of them had their jail terms confirmed.

Croat leaders in the Balkans seized upon Praljak's apparent suicide as evidence of the failings of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), which was handing down its final judgement before shutting down.

"His act, which we all unfortunately witnessed today, speaks mostly about the deep moral injustice towards six Croats from Bosnia and the Croatian people," Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic told a news conference.

"I want to voice my deepest condolences to the family of General Slobodan Praljak," Plenkovic said, voicing his "dissatisfaction and regret" over the verdicts.

The judges upheld that 72-year-old Praljak and his five co-accused were part of a "joint criminal enterprise" to ethnically cleanse Bosnian Muslims with the aim of uniting Croats across Croatia and Bosnia.

'Humiliation' of court

After the judges confirmed Praljak's sentence, the former military commander yelled that he rejected the verdict before swigging liquid from a brown bottle. He was then rushed to hospital, where he died.

His act demonstrated "what sacrifice he was ready to make in front of the whole world in order to show that Slobodan Praljak is not a war criminal," said Dragan Covic, the Croat member of Bosnia's tripartite presidency.

"It is a humiliation of this institution (the court) which has existed since 1993."

Croatia's President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic interrupted a visit to Iceland to "urgently" return home to Zagreb as the news came in from The Hague.

Significantly, the judges upheld the original trial's finding that the "ultimate purpose" of the joint criminal enterprise in Bosnia was shared by late Croatian president Franjo Tudjman, seen as the "father" of his country.

It is a ruling at odds with the view from Zagreb, where Croatia's own 1990s war is seen as one of liberation and self-defence against Belgrade aggression as Yugoslavia fell apart.

In the Croatian capital last week, a message from Grabar-Kitarovic was read out a book launch praising the "contribution of General Slobodan Praljak in defending both Croatia and Bosnia" from Serbian aggression.

She expressed hope for "a just verdict and his liberation".

'Should have served sentence'

Praljak's name remains closely tied to the destruction of the iconic Ottoman-era bridge in Bosnia's southern city of Mostar in November 1993, during fierce clashes between Croats and Muslims.

Although the bridge was rebuilt after the war, the city remains sharply segregated along ethnic lines, which was clearer than ever on Wednesday evening.

The Muslim-dominated eastern side of the city was deserted, while on the western side, mostly home to Croats, mourners lit candles for Praljak in the square.

"He is a hero," said 62-year-old Nada Peric, insisting that the ex-commander was "defending his people".

Earlier in the day, Bosnian Muslim veterans who were detained by Croat forces during the war had gathered to hear the ruling - and had very different reactions.

When they saw Praljak drinking his vial, one of them quipped that it was alcohol.

"It's sad, he should not have done that," said former detainee Almir Zalihic. "He should have served his sentence for all he did."

Croatian political analyst Zarko Puhovski said Praljak's death would overshadow the verdict and make him a new "Croatian saint".

And although the court was meant to promote reconciliation in the Balkans after the region's bloody wars, he said Wednesday's judgement may have the opposite effect.

"It will certainly harm inter-ethnic ties," Puhovski told AFP.

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