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The Poisoned General

Newspapers report on the death of Slobodan Praljak in the southern Bosnian town of Mostar on November 30.

Slobodan Praljak committed suicide on live television in the hall of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague on November 29.

After hearing that the appeals panel had confirmed his 2013 sentence of 20 years in prison for war crimes, the former chief of the self-proclaimed General Staff of the Croatian Defense Council (the army of Bosnia's ethnic Croats) shouted: "Slobodan Praljak is not a war criminal! I reject this verdict with disdain!"

He then lifted a dark glass vial containing an unknown liquid to his mouth. A few hours later, local doctors confirmed reports that the 72-year-old prisoner had died.

Such was the tragic and theatrical ending of the last and longest trial in the quarter-century history of the UN tribunal. The accusations against the six leaders of the so-called Croatian Republic of Herceg-Bosna were first filed in 2004. Soon after, Praljak surrendered himself to international justice, in order to "defend my good name in court," as he said. The trial opened in 2006 and dragged on slowly for years before all six defendants were convicted.

But Praljak didn't always command armies. Before the conflicts in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, Praljak was educated as an electrical engineer. He worked as a theater director in Zagreb and Osijek in Croatia and Mostar in Bosnia. He also dabbled in television.

Stripped of context, Slobodan Praljak's samurai final act might evoke respect or sympathy, as an extreme act motivated by absolute despair or total certainty in the correctness of one's position. But individual perceptions of honor don't always coincide with correctness."

But he only came to prominence in the former Yugoslavia after the beginning of the Serbian-Croatian conflict in 1991 when he formed a volunteer unit of "intellectuals" and workers from the arts. He soon, in accordance with the circumstances of war, reached the rank of major general and then, by virtue of his Bosnian origins, was sent by Zagreb back to his homeland.

And that was the impression -- a vocal intellectual in a military overcoat -- that he made on me in the fall of 1993 in the Bosnian town of Medjugorje. The broadly smiling general casually quoted Dostoevsky and mentioned Chekhov, but he avoided answering specific questions. He preferred to speak in general terms about patriotism and the sacred defense of national interests (nowadays, it would be called "the Croatian world") from "Serbian and Muslim aggressors" wherever a "real patriot" sees such aggression.

About a month after our meeting, the Old Bridge in Mostar -- a remarkable example of Ottoman architecture -- was destroyed by fire from Croatian tanks. Tribunal prosecutors blamed Praljak for the death of the Old Bridge but did not establish direct responsibility. Moreover, it was found that Bosnian Muslims were using the bridge to move ammunition, so the judges ruled that although the Croatian actions were excessive, the bridge was a legitimate military target. The Old Bridge was just the best known of the dozens of charges contained in case file No. IT-0474-A, many of which did not leave any doubts in the minds of judges as to what the verdict should be.

Stripped of context, Slobodan Praljak's samurai final act might evoke respect or sympathy, as an extreme act motivated by absolute despair or total certainty in the correctness of one's position. But individual perceptions of honor don't always coincide with correctness. During his imprisonment, apparently, the general only became more convinced of his innocence. But those who have been in the destroyed Muslim village of Ahmici, whose residents were murdered by Croatian soldiers in the spring of 1993, and those who know of the ethnic cleansing carried out by the Croats in the Lasva River Valley, and even those who simply flipped through the multiple volumes of Praljak's case files have formed a different view of the general's career.

In the area controlled by the self-proclaimed Croatian General Staff, war crimes were committed that Praljak simply must have known about and which he was obligated to prevent (or, if he couldn't prevent them, to punish the perpetrators), even if he did not personally issue the evil orders. Those orders, which were part of a campaign of direct military intervention by Croatia in a neighboring country, in the end resulted in Praljak's 20-year prison sentence -- two-thirds of which he'd already managed to serve before making his final, hopeless stand.

It is possible that the guilt in this case is not attributable to innate or developed qualities of personal character but to nationalism, propaganda, and war. And to the ways that they deform our conceptions of good and evil and of how we can and should act and of what we should never do under any circumstances. These forces are capable of transforming patriotism into its exact opposite. Nationalism, propaganda, and war can turn likable bearded men into defendants and convicts.

If it hadn't been for that poisonous war, Slobodan Praljak would not be lying now lifeless in a hospital morgue but rather would be successfully and happily presenting plays by Miroslav Krleza, Anton Chekhov, and William Shakespeare.

But the war happened, and Slobodan Praljak became a general -- and a criminal.

Andrei Shary was an RFE/RL correspondent in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s. Translated from the Russian by Robert Coalson. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.