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A War Criminal Drank Poison in Court. How Could That Happen?

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LONDON — The international tribunal dealing with the former Yugoslavia said on Friday that it would conduct an “independent expert review” of the death of Slobodan Praljak, a Croat military commander in the 1992-95 Bosnian conflict who drank what he said was poison in full view of the court that found him guilty of war crimes.

In a statement, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia said its inquiries would “complement” an official Dutch investigation. Mr. Praljak’s apparent suicide on Wednesday stunned judges, lawyers and spectators and raised many questions about how he might have obtained poison and managed to smuggle the vial into the courtroom.

“Slobodan Praljak is not a war criminal,” he declared shortly after judges reaffirmed a 20-year sentence for war crimes and crimes against humanity. “I reject your judgment with contempt.”

The court said that he had died in a hospital in The Hague after being taken there by ambulance.

Its inquiry was announced after Croatia’s justice minister called into question the speed of responses by security and medical staff.

The court said on Friday that its inquiry would be led by Hassan B. Jallow, the chief justice of Gambia and a former prosecutor at a tribunal responsible for war crimes in Rwanda. “The review is mandated to undertake an assessment of relevant existing procedures as well as make any recommendations which may assist other courts in the future,” the tribunal said. A report on the findings is expected by Dec. 31, when the tribunal dealing with the former Yugoslavia is to be closed.

But it was unclear to what extent those findings would be open to scrutiny. “The outcome of the review will be made public, subject to due process and confidentiality considerations,” the tribunal said.

To smuggle the vial into the courtroom, Mr. Praljak had to circumvent what are supposed to be tight security arrangements. Defendants are transferred to the courtroom from a detention center in a high-security Dutch jail. They are escorted by guards and enter the building through an underground parking lot. They are supposed to have no contact with members of the public, and visitors to the jail must pass through a security check.

On Thursday, a Dutch prosecutor, Marilyn Fikenscher, told The Associated Press that a preliminary test of the vial from which Mr. Praljak drank had revealed a “chemical substance” that “can cause death.” But she declined to elaborate on its precise nature.

An autopsy was started Friday morning, the prosecutor said, with two Croatian experts observing it at the request of the international tribunal.

Mr. Praljak, a former theater director, was one of six former fighters who faced charges relating to a campaign to drive Muslims from a Croat state formed in 1993 during the Bosnian war. Mr. Praljak held the rank of general.

On Wednesday, the court upheld sentences against all six former fighters. They were initially found guilty in 2013 but had appealed the judgment. Mr. Praljak played a leading role in the long assault on the ethnically mixed city of Mostar, which included the destruction of the town’s 16th-century stone bridge.

Christopher F. Schuetze contributed reporting from The Hague.

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Source: NYT > World

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