Dutch prosecutors are investigating how a Bosnian Croat war criminal managed to commit suicide on November 30, apparently after drinking poison he had smuggled into the UN war crimes court in the Hague, in scenes that were broadcast live.
Slobodan Praljak, 72, died in a nearby hospital on November 29 despite efforts to save him, a spokesman for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), Nenad Golcevski, told reporters on November 29.
There was no immediate information about the nature of the liquid he drank.
Dutch prosecutors declared the court a crime scene and opened an investigation that they said 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 Dutch Public Prosecution Service said in a statement late on November 29, AFP reported.
Croatia's Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic earlier offered condolences to Praljak’s family, saying at a press conference, "we have all unfortunately witnessed his act by which he took his own life."
Praljak, a former commander of Bosnian Croat forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina's 1992-95 war, was one of six Bosnian Croat defendants in court to hear rulings on the appeal of their sentences at the ICTY.
He appeared to take a drink moments after judges at the tribunal confirmed his 20-year sentence on appeal.
"Slobodan Praljak is not a war criminal. I reject the verdict with disdain," he shouted.
Presiding Judge Carmel Agius quickly halted the November 29 hearing.
WARNING: This video contains scenes some viewers may find disturbing.
Police, an ambulance, and a fire engine could be seen outside the building and emergency rescue workers went into the court, while a helicopter hovered above the scene.
Agius had overturned some of Praljak's convictions but left his sentence unchanged.
Praljak, who was sentenced to 20 years' imprisonment in 2013, was one of six former Bosnian Croat political and military leaders standing before the court.
Praljak was specifically charged with ordering the destruction of Mostar's 16th-century bridge in November 1993, which judges in the first trial had ruled "caused disproportionate damage to the Muslim civilian population."
The blown-up Ottoman-era bridge became a symbol of Bosnia's devastation in the war. It was later rebuilt, but Mostar saw the worst of the Croat-Muslim clashes, with nearly 80 percent of the city's east destroyed in the fighting.
In their November 29 ruling, the judges actually allowed part of Praljak's appeal, saying the bridge had been a legitimate military target during the conflict. They also had overturned some of his convictions, but refused to reduce his overall sentence.
Croat leaders seized upon Praljak's suicide as evidence of the failings of the war crimes tribunal, which was handing down its final judgement before shutting down.
"His act, which we all unfortunately witnessed today, speaks mostly about the deep moral injustice towards six Croats from Bosnia and the Croatian people," Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic told a news conference.
"I want to voice my deepest condolences to the family of General Slobodan Praljak," Plenkovic said, voicing his "dissatisfaction and regret" over the verdicts.
Croatia's President, Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic, decided to cut short an official visit to Iceland, while the government called an emergency session.
The chairman of Bosnia's three-man presidency, Dragan Covic, a Bosnian Croat, said "this is not a court of justice, but a political one."
Bakir Izetbegovic, a Muslim member of Bosnia's presidency, expressed his condolences to the victims of war crimes during the conflict in the former Yugoslav republic.
"We will never forget either the victims or criminals," he said. "This was the way to put the international seal on a dark side of the truth about the reasons for creating and actions of Herceg-Bosna," the wartime statelet formed by Bosnian Croats.
Besides Praljak, the other five defendants included Bosnian Croat leader Jadranko Prlic, who appealed his 25-year term imposed by the court in The Hague, and four others, who are also appealing long prison sentences ranging from 10 to 20 years.
Before the hearing was halted, Prlic had also had his 25-year jail term upheld.
Prlic had been found guilty of being part of a criminal enterprise by the wartime Croatian government of late President Franjo Tudjman, to create an ethnically pure state.
Judges upheld that key finding, despite Croatian officials having denounced it and calling for it to be overturned.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo called the court’s verdict an "important step toward holding to account those individuals responsible for the tremendous suffering of the people" of Bosnia.
It also urged all parties to respect the verdict, and "rededicate themselves to the continued reconciliation and peaceful coexistence essential to the future of a stable, secure" Bosnia.
The appeals hearing comes a week after the judges sentenced former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic to life in prison.
It marks the end of two decades of work by the court, set up in 1993 at the height of the Balkans conflicts to prosecute Europe's worst atrocities since World War II.