BY KIAN RAHIMNEJAD
On Nov. 29, 2017, former Croatian Military General Slobodan Praljak’s appeal to overturn his 20-year prison sentence for war crimes was denied. After receiving the ruling, Praljak addressed the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and told the judges, “Slobodan Praljak is not a war criminal. With disdain, I reject your verdict!” After his act of bravado—to be expected by a former film director with a love and passion for the cinematic arts—he took his performance to the next level. He pulled out a vial of poison and drank it on live television, effectively showcasing his suicide to the entire world. Before this act of ultimate defiance, the only people who really knew of him were his nationalist supporters back home in his native Croatia and those impacted by his acts of violence and borderline genocide against the Muslim population of former Yugoslavia. However, his final act captivated the minds of millions around the world.
After the Croatian War of Independence broke out in 1991, the Croats of Yugoslavia decided to declare independence from the union of Yugoslavia. Though the traditionally Catholic Croats lived in uneasy peace with their Orthodox Serbian and Muslim Bosnian brethren, nationalist sentiments centered around independence reached their peak after the fall of the Soviet Union. Praljak joined the Croatian Armed Forces to defend his country, as civil war had broken out in the Union. However, Praljak was not always a military man. He graduated from the Academy of Dramatic Art at the University of Zagreb in 1972 and went on to work as a film director. For many years after that, Praljak held high military positions in his country and it wasn’t until 1993 he committed the high crimes he was on trial for. Praljak, a representative of the Ministry of Defense for Croatia, was accused of being in command of concentration camps in which Muslim Bosniaks were starved, tortured, and killed. He was also accused of having feigned ignorance and thus failing to stop heinous crimes against Muslims committed by his own troops during war where his forces were in conflict with both the Serbs of the Yugoslav government as well as some Muslim-Bosnian residents.
After the war, Praljak was not immediately indicted on any counts or prosecuted for his crimes. However, the ICTY, which was created by the International Court of Justice in the Hague to prosecute war criminals of the bloody civil conflict, began gradually to develop their case in efforts to indict him. In 2004, after he voluntarily surrendered himself, he faced charges such as war crimes, crimes against humanity, and breaching the Geneva Conventions. After an 11-year trial starting in 2006, including his appeal after a guilty verdict in 2013, Praljak was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
As Praljak saw his fate was clear, he ended his own life in the theatrical manner that defined his life and pre-war career as a film director. Andrey Shary of Radio Liberty observed that, “Praljak’s samurai final act might evoke respect or sympathy,” which may certainly be the case especially for those who supported him in the first place. However, journalist Amer Obradovic, an actual victim of Praljak’s crimes, said of his death, “People who were with me in the camp survived the most horrific torture, but none of them took their own life. Camp detainees are brave people. And these ‘great army leaders’ and generals are mere cowards.”