ZAGREB, CROATIA: Bosnian Croat war criminal Slobodan Praljak, who died Wednesday after apparently drinking poison in a dramatic courtroom scene, worked in film and theatre before becoming a military commander in the 1990s conflict.
The 72-year-old died in hospital in The Hague after swigging from a small brown bottle in court in full view of television cameras just after UN judges had upheld his 20-year sentence.
Tall with a white beard, Praljak was one of six Bosnian Croats appealing against their convictions for war crimes committed during the bloody break-up of Yugoslavia, and Wednesday's ruling was the tribunal's final judgement.
The appeal judges said all six men, found guilty of participating in a scheme to remove Bosnian Muslims, "remained convicted of numerous and very serious crimes".
Praljak was specifically charged with ordering the destruction of Mostar's iconic Ottoman-era bridge in November 1993, which judges in the first trial had said: "caused disproportionate damage to the Muslim civilian population".
"It's just an old bridge," Praljak said at the time, showing scant regard for the emotional effect that the landmark's loss had on Bosnians of all ethnic backgrounds.
The judges had on Wednesday actually allowed part of Praljak's appeal, saying the bridge had been a legitimate military target during the conflict, although they did not reduce his sentence.
After the conflict, in which some 100,000 people were killed, the bridge over the Neretva river was rebuilt and reopened as a symbol of reconciliation in 2004 -- although Mostar today remains sharply divided along ethnic lines.
- Rising up the ranks -
Praljak was born in the southern Bosnian town of Capljina and later studied in the Croatian capital Zagreb, graduating with degrees in electrical engineering, sociology and drama.
He went on to work as a theatre director and TV producer. He directed the 1989 film "The Return of Katarina Kozul" before joining the Croatian army to battle rebel Serbs during Croatia's 1991-1995 war.
His lack of military experience did not hinder his rise through the ranks and he quickly became a general assisting the Croatian defence minister.
From March 1992 to July 1993, Praljak served as a mediator between the nationalist Croatian regime and the Bosnian Croat leadership, playing an important role in supplying weapons to Bosnian Croat forces.
Although Bosnia's Catholic Croats and Bosniak Muslims initially fought together against Serbs in the conflict, they turned on each other in 1993 for 11 months.
Bosnian Croats formed a breakaway statelet, the "republic" of Herceg-Bosna, which they eventually hoped to merge with Croatia.
- Verdict rejected -
Praljak, who is married with two step-children, went into business after the war, with his assets including a hotel, office blocks and a restaurant in Zagreb, according to Croatian media.
He turned himself in to the court in 2004 and pleaded not guilty to the charges. While in detention, he wrote numerous books analysing the 1990s conflicts.
Seconds after his sentence was upheld on Wednesday, he shouted angrily: "Praljak is not a criminal. I reject your verdict."
He then drank from the bottle and proceedings were quickly suspended as Praljak's lawyer called out: "My client says he has taken poison."
Curtains were brought down on the chaos in the courtroom.
Speaking to AFP, Croatian political analyst Zarko Puhovski said Praljak's death would overshadow the verdicts and he would become a new "Croatian saint".