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War Criminal Dies After Drinking 'Poison' In Court

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Today there was a surprising and pretty dramatic end to a war crimes trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague. Former Bosnian Croat General Slobodan Praljak learned that his appeal had been rejected, which would mean he'd likely spend the rest of his life in prison. Then he stood up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SLOBODAN PRALJAK: (Foreign language spoken).

MCEVERS: He said he was not a war criminal and that he rejected the court's verdict with disdain. Then the presiding judge said this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARMEL AGIUS: Stop, please. Please sit down.

MCEVERS: But Praljak didn't sit down. Instead, he picked up a small cup, brought it to his mouth, tossed his head back and through a translator, said this.

PRALJAK: (Through interpreter) I have taken poison.

MCEVERS: The judge looked stunned. Other judges jumped out of their chairs. And the curtains were drawn, and the court suspended its hearing. Praljak later died at a Dutch hospital. Reporter Teri Schultz has been following this story from Brussels, and she's with us now. Hey, Teri.

TERI SCHULTZ, BYLINE: Hey, Kelly.

MCEVERS: So I mean, first of all, the question that I think so many people have is how could he have gotten poison into this courtroom, a place that I would imagine has pretty intense security?

SCHULTZ: Dutch authorities are investigating, but they certainly haven't made any statement about this initially. But everyone I spoke with, including attorneys who've worked at the court, were shocked not so much actually that he could have sneaked this in because it was very small. You're checked for electronics. You're checked for things in your pockets. But that could've gotten through. What people are surprised about is that there weren't more measures of prevention taken on this last day of the court where you knew the whole world was going to be watching, that every precaution wasn't taken to make sure nobody could pull anything like this.

MCEVERS: Who was Slobodan Praljak, and what was he convicted of?

SCHULTZ: Well, he certainly wasn't one of those household names among the indictees at the War Crimes Tribunal. He was a Bosnian Croat politician basically and even a former theater director. But during the war, he became a commander - a military commander.

And what he was convicted of was actually not stopping the murder of Muslims and contributing to the destruction of property in Mostar, blowing up a bridge. So he wasn't - he wouldn't have been considered a mastermind. But at the same time, he was one of six Bosnian Croats who in effect used many of the same tactics as the Bosnian Serbs in trying to carve out an ethnically homogenous portion of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

MCEVERS: You know, this court is nearing the end of its very long tenure. It's supposed to be completely closed at the end of next month, but it's got a lot of criticism over the years. What does something like this do to its reputation?

SCHULTZ: Well, you're right. There has been a lot of criticism. A lot of trials took way too long to come to their conclusion. But still, last week's verdict - convicting former Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic on 10 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity would have made the court look very strong. And had this not happened, this sort of would have faded out. These were appeals hearings, so you know, nothing so dramatic was expected today.

But this in fact will - it will bring up all kinds of questions like lack of security, like lack of foresight, like even the fact that there weren't any measures in place to deal with such a situation. They sort of just fumbled around and said, wait; don't move that glass. Let's call an ambulance. I think it looks like the court was in a bit of a shambles at the end instead of getting its rightful due for convicting 90 war criminals over its mandate.

MCEVERS: Reporter Teri Schultz in Brussels, thank you so much.

SCHULTZ: Sure, Kelly. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.