THE HAGUE • The court session in The Hague was meant to be the final act of a decades-long legal process over the atrocities of the Bosnian and Croatian wars. Instead, it descended into confusion and, ultimately, death.
As judges at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia were delivering their rulings on Wednesday on appeals related to Croatia's involvement in the 1992-95 Bosnian conflict, one of the six defendants, Slobodan Praljak, addressed the court.
"Slobodan Praljak is not a war criminal," he declared slowly in Croatian, just moments after judges upheld his 20-year jail sentence for war crimes and crimes against humanity. "I reject your judgment with contempt."
He pulled out a small container, raised it to his lips and swallowed the contents. He then said: "I have taken poison."
Praljak, a tall, distinguished-looking man with silver hair and a goatee, was taken from the court and the hearing was suspended. Guards seized the container.
The curtains that divide the court from the public gallery were drawn.
Praljak, a former general, 72, later died in a Dutch hospital, according to Mr Nenad Golcevski, a tribunal spokesman.
But many questions remain unanswered, including the most significant one: How did Praljak obtain poison and smuggle it into the tightly secured courthouse?
The defendants were transferred to the courtroom from a detention centre within a high-security Dutch jail compound. They were driven into the tribunal building through an underground parking lot, escorted by guards.
Praljak's suicide is the third by a defendant facing the tribunal, but the previous two had taken their lives in the court's detention cells.
Judges on Wednesday upheld the sentences against all of the six defendants, but the suicide of Praljak - the most senior member of the group - quickly overshadowed those decisions.
Before the Bosnian and Croatian wars, Praljak had been a theatre and film director and a writer. He joined the Croatian army as a senior official when it was formed after the country achieved independence in 1991 as Yugoslavia disintegrated. He was eventually named commander of the Croatian forces fighting in Bosnia.
He was a key figure, in particular, during the long siege and shelling of the ethnically mixed city of Mostar. The siege was the most widely publicised Croatian military action during the war.
At the time, he was the main liaison between political and military leaders in Croatia and the Croatian force fighting in Bosnia.
Prosecutors said militias funded and staffed by the Croatian government rounded up non-Croatian men, imprisoning up to 10,000. Women and the older people were abused, raped and, in some cases, killed. Tens of thousands fled. Most of the victims were Bosnian Muslims, also called Bosniaks, but Serbs and Roma people also suffered.