THE HAGUE: A UN war crimes court said Friday it is launching an “independent expert review” into the death of a Bosnian Croat war criminal who appeared to drink poison in front of shocked judges.
The probe will complement the Dutch investigation into the suicide of Slobodan Praljak, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) said in a statement.
Praljak, 72, died in hospital shortly after drinking from a small brown glass bottle in the ICTY courtroom on Wednesday, with his lawyer claiming it was poison.
His final act of defiance, which was broadcast live around the world, came just moments after judges rejected his appeal, upholding his 20-year jail term for atrocities committed in a breakaway Bosnian Croat statelet during the 1990s wars.
On Thursday, Dutch prosecutor Marilyn Fikenscher told AFP that initial tests showed the bottle contained “a chemical substance which can cause death” although they have yet to carry out an autopsy or toxicology tests.
The shocking images drew the curtain on two decades of work at the court, set up in 1993 to try those responsible for the worst atrocities in Europe since World War II.
But it remains a mystery what the former theater and movie director, known for his forcible courtroom presence and outbursts, drank and how he managed to get it past the tight security at the tribunal.
Speaking to Croatia’s HINA news agency, Praljak’s lawyer Nika Pinter said she had no idea what her client was about to do.
“Nobody killed him, it was suicide. I am sad but I understand and respect what he did,” she told the agency Thursday on board a flight from Amsterdam to Zagreb.
“I never thought he could do such a thing, but I understand because he is a man of honor who couldn’t live with a conviction for war crimes and being led out of the courtroom in handcuffs.”
The lawyer said that during conversations ahead of the verdict, Praljak had never given any hint of what he was planning, but she said it was clear her client would find it very difficult to accept the court’s confirmation of his 20-year sentence.
Dutch prosecutors have already launched a full investigation at the court’s request, including into security lapses, and have said their probe will focus on “assisted suicide and violation of the Medicines Act.”
The UN court probe, which will begin next week, will look at “ICTY internal operations” in order to assess “relevant existing procedures as well as make any recommendations which may assist other courts in the future,” the statement said.
It will be led by justice Hassan B. Jallow, chief justice of The Gambia and former prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, and will aim to issue a report by the time the court closes on December 31, with its conclusions to be made public.
Major questions remain about how Praljak obtained the substance and if it happened at the fortress-like UN detention center in Scheveningen where he was being held, or inside the tribunal building a few miles away.
Everyone entering the UN detention center is subjected to security checks “irrespective of his or her status, nationality, function or age,” according to the rules.
And everyone must pass through scanners. Every item brought to the center or sent by mail is also inspected, or opened or X-rayed.