THE HAGUE: Dutch prosecutors are investigating how a Bosnian Croat war criminal managed to dramatically take his own life, apparently after drinking poison he had smuggled into a UN court, in scenes that were broadcast live.
In shocking footage beamed around the world, Slobodan Praljak drank from a small brown glass bottle and exclaimed he had taken poison moments after UN judges upheld his 20-year jail term for atrocities committed during the 1990s Balkans conflict.
The 72-year-old died in hospital after being rushed from the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), casting a cloud over what should have been a successful end to the court's tenure.
Prosecutors said their investigation would focus on what killed Praljak and whether he had received any outside help in obtaining the suspected poison.
"For the time being the inquiry will focus on assisted suicide and violation of the Medicines Act," the Public Prosecution Service said in a statement late Wednesday, adding it would not be commenting further.
The unprecedented drama came as judges handed down their very last verdict at the court in the appeal case of six Bosnian Croat political and military leaders.
Praljak, a former military commander of a breakaway Bosnian Croat statelet, shouted out angrily: "Praljak is not a criminal. I reject your verdict." Standing tall, with a shock of white hair and beard, he then raised a small brown bottle to his lips, and tipped it into his mouth. The hearing was quickly suspended as Praljak's lawyer interjected: "My client says he has taken poison." ICTY spokesman Nenad Golcevski told reporters that Praljak "quickly fell ill" and died in hospital. He could not confirm what was in the bottle.
The stunning events caused a shockwave in Croatia and intense embarrassment at a war crimes tribunal that closes next month more than two decades after being set up at the height of the 1992-1995 Bosnian conflict.
Among the questions to be answered will be how he managed to evade tight security to smuggle the bottle into the tribunal.
And if the liquid was indeed poison or noxious, how did he acquire it in the UN detention centre in The Hague where he was being held? Croatia's Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic slammed the "injustice" of the UN tribunal and expressed his condolences.
"His act, which we all unfortunately witnessed today, speaks mostly about the deep moral injustice towards six Croats from Bosnia and the Croatian people," he told reporters.
Praljak's act demonstrated "what sacrifice he was ready to make" to show he was "not a war criminal," said Dragan Covic, the Croat member of Bosnia's tripartite presidency.
"It is a humiliation of this institution which has existed since 1993."