Location Croatia Croatia

In His Final Act, War Criminal Hijacks Court

The shocking public suicide of Slobodan Praljak at the Hague Tribunal has overshadowed the significant findings of Croatia’s complicity in mass crimes in Bosnia and has further diminished the legacy of the international court.

Wednesday’s reading of the appellate verdict in the case against six Bosnian Croatian defendants was the last verdict issued by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

The verdict upheld most of the charges against military and political leaders of ‘Herzeg-Bosna’, the self-proclaimed statelet in wartime Bosnia where Croatian forces committed massive crimes against humanity directed at Bosniak civilians.

But instead of this day being remembered for the court’s very important confirmation that Croatian leadership engaged in a joint criminal enterprise to commit mass atrocity in Bosnia, it will be remembered for the televised suicide of one of the defendants, Slobodan Praljak.

In a completely surreal spectacle, upon hearing that his sentence of 20 years was upheld, referring to himself in the third person, Praljak proclaimed, “Slobodan Praljak is not a war criminal”, drank a vial of what appeared to be poison, and died a few hours later.

That this was allowed to happen at all at a high-profile UN court is hard to understand, but that it happened on the very last day of ICTY proceedings, and will forever cast a shadow on the important work of the court, truly beggars belief.

Why was Praljak not searched? Why were his visitors not monitored? Why was there not extra security on this special day? How in the world could the ICTY let this happen?

All this is even more extraordinary considering that two defendants have already committed suicide in ICTY custody – Slavko Dokmanovic in 1997 and Milan Babic in 2006.

Twelve other defendants have also died while on trial or waiting to start their sentences.  The most consequential of all, of course, was the death of Slobodan Milosevic from heart failure during his trial in 2006.

The ICTY should by now have developed airtight protocols to avoid this horrible outcome. There will surely be an investigation, someone will lose their job, and a new security procedure will be put in place for other, similar courts.

But the damage to the ICTY legacy and its international justice project is immense.

This incident will give more fuel to the many critics of the court who have questioned its professionalism (the 2013 Judge Harhoff scandal is but one example), or the perceived lenient treatment of defendants (Milosevic, Seselj, Karadzic, Mladic) who have on many occasions hijacked the court proceedings, intimidated witnesses, and ran the courtroom like it was a seminar in bad history.

It will surely lead to a resurgence of conspiracy theories about the many deaths in custody and the still-lingering rumors in Serbia, Republika Srpska, and Russia about the “suspicious” death of Milosevic.

And it will most certainly turn Praljak into a Croatian martyr, who will now be celebrated at far-right gatherings together with the acquitted hero Ante Gotovina.

The most damaging consequence of Wednesday’s events, however, is the ability of the defendants to yet again make the proceedings only about themselves.

Instead of talking about what Praljak was convicted of, about his many victims and the horrors they endured, we talk about him.

So let’s talk about his crimes.

Together with his five co-conspirators, Praljak was convicted of implementing an entire system of forced deportation of Bosniak population from the ‘Herzeg-Bosna’ entity.

This system included detention in concentration camps, murder, torture, infliction of terror on civilians and the use of detainees as slave labor and as human shields.

The camp at Dretelj was particularly heinous, where Bosniak prisoners were subject to starvation, constant beatings and humiliation, and were at times forced to beat each other.

The Croatian military forces of which Praljak was the leader also carried out wanton physical destruction, including the demolition of the iconic 16th century bridge over the Neretva river in Mostar, which the ICTY found was done to demoralise and isolate the Bosniak population.

More broadly, the Praljak conviction included the court finding that the state of Croatia, under the leadership of late president Franjo Tudjman, carried out a joint criminal enterprise with the leadership of ‘Herzeg-Bosna’ to commit acts of terror.

This is a hugely important finding as it implicates Croatian top leadership, including Tudjman, whose death precluded him from ever facing accountability for war crimes, in the war in Bosnia.

The judgment undermines Croatia’s position that it did not wage war in Bosnia and was therefore not responsible for the grave war crimes that were committed.

This position was never credible, and as of the last ICTY verdict, it is legally obliterated.

And herein lies the paradox of the Hague Tribunal. While prosecuting individuals for their own criminal accountability, the court has often lost sight of its larger mission.

In the absence of any credible domestic efforts to acknowledge the crimes of the past, the pressure to determine facts, write the historical account of the crimes, prosecute the responsible, and render some approximation of justice has always fallen squarely on the court.

The ICTY was the most visible – however imperfect – mechanism of transitional justice in the region. Its every decision was important, its every precedent historic, its every judgment significant for the victims and survivors. Its every step, procedure, formality was under the microscope. It had no room for mistakes.

It will now be that much harder to build on its legacy to mobilizse domestic coalitions for real narrative change and de-nationalisation of politics in Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia.

by Jelena Subotic

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