An unprecedented event occurred last week at a session of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY): Slobodan Praljak, 72, a former Bosnian Croat general, announced that he was “not a war criminal,” drank a poison, and then died in a hospital. This happened immediately after the judge upheld his 20-year sentence passed in 2013. Deutsche Welle (DW) says that Praljak is one of the six former political and military leaders of Bosnian Croats who stood the trial. He was one of the commanders of a unit that committed war crimes against Bosnian Muslims in almost 30 municipalities of Bosnia and Herzegovina, including Mostar, where a 16th-century bridge was ruined.
This immediately touched off a wave of comments in the world media about how the defendant managed to carry the bottle with poison to the court room. The Guardian says: “An investigation is likely to be launched into... how he could have smuggled the bottle into court through what should have been strict security at the longest-running war crimes tribunal in The Hague.”
Radio Free Europe reports that Dutch prosecutors have opened an investigation that would focus on what killed Praljak and whether he had received any outside help in obtaining the poison.
Reuters says that stricter procedures at the UN detention unit in The Hague were adopted following the death of suspect Slobodan Milosevic, the former Serbian and Yugoslav president, of a heart attack. Previously, two defendants awaiting their ICTY trial, both Serbs, committed suicide in their UN cells.
Incidentally, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia handed down its last ruling on that day and now, almost a quarter of a century later, has ended its work.
DW writes that the suicide death of Praljak has overshadowed the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia’s final verdict. According to the agency, over the last 25 years some 161 people have been charged with crimes. The court convicted 90 people in all, including presidents, generals, and intelligence services leaders, most of whom were given long prison sentences. The most spectacular of those trials was that of former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic who died before his trial was concluded. And last week the Hague tribunal sentenced former Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic to life in prison.
“THERE IS NO PROOF THAT PRALJAK’S CONVICTION WAS UNJUST”
Volodymyr VASYLENKO, Doctor of Law, Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Ambassador of Ukraine, a judge at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in 2002-05:
“This dramatic event is about one person – a Croatian general who thus expressed his personal disagreement with the International Tribunal’s sentence – and will carry no political or legal consequences. In principle, very many people are dissatisfied with the rulings of both national and international courts.
“As for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, the vast majority of the convicted people have considered themselves innocent and expressed disagreement with the sentence even before. They and their sympathizers used to express protests. In this case the protest assumed an extreme and dramatic form. But there is no proof that Praljak’s conviction was unjust and is the result of a biased attitude to the defendant.”
You were a judge at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. Could you tell us more in detail about the performance of this body?
“The tribunal was established to punish the people who took part in the conflict on the territory of the former Yugoslavia and committed war crimes and crimes against humanity. The tribunal practiced no discrimination against either the Serbs, or the Croats, or the Bosnian Muslims. The same norms, set out in the tribunal’s statute and rules of procedure, were applied to all. There was no bias against defendants on the basis of their ethnicity.
“On the one hand, the tribunal was established as a body that was to punish the guilty and fully restore justice. On the other, it was to lay the groundwork for a future reconciliation among the populace and between the states that had emerged on the territory of the former Yugoslavia. There have not been so far and I don’t think there will be any official complaints from European governments about the tribunal’s performance. All of its rulings were just and fair, for they were based on the truth. I am more than sure that European democracies will make no negative appraisal of the tribunal’s performance. The main conclusion is that the tribunal has played a positive role by adhering to the principle of the unavoidability of punishment for international crimes.”
War is going on in Ukraine, and Russia is committing aggression against this country and has annexed some Ukrainian territories. Do you believe that Russian mercenaries will also be punished one day for killing our citizens?
“I do believe in this and think that justice will prevail sooner or later. As far back as 2015, the Verkhovna Rada resolved to recognize mandatory jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC) over the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during Russia’s armed aggression against Ukraine. And a case of this kind is now under study at the ICC. The scrutiny of this case and punishment of the guilty will depend on whether the Ukrainian side will manage to furnish the convincing evidence of the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the aggressor’s armed forces and occupational administration.”
The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia passes judgments for flagrant violations of humanitarian law. Meanwhile, the British government refused the other day to recognize the 1932-33 Holodomor in Ukraine as genocide. How can you explain this?
“It is up to the British government to decide. The government of every state has the right to recognize or not to recognize a certain act, fact, or situation. The British government says that, to recognize the Ukraine Holodomor as a crime of genocide, they need the ruling of a British court. This is a strange excuse for refusing to recognize the Holodomor as genocide. I do not see it necessary for a British court to recognize the Holodomor. Some measures could be taken. The Kyiv Court of Appeal resolved on January 13, 2010, to uphold the previously-made conclusions about the case opened by the Security Service of Ukraine, which confirmed that the communist regime in Ukraine had committed a crime of genocide by intentionally killing millions of Ukrainians in 1932-33 by way of famine.
“What is no less important than recognition of the Holodomor as genocide by one government or another is the attitude of Ukrainian society to this tragedy. Opinion polls show today that 77 percent of Ukrainian citizens consider the Holodomor as a crime of genocide. Compared to previous surveys, this indicates a much larger number of those who interpret the Holodomor this way. This is gratifying because the attitude of society to this crime as to a national tragedy testifies to the growing national self-awareness and further promotes the national unity of Ukrainians. Therefore, the Ukrainian leadership and civil society must focus on making concerted efforts inside the country so that 100 percent of our citizens are unanimous in the appraisal of this crime against the Ukrainian nation and are aware of who committed it. This would be a powerful factor of national cohesion and reinforcement of our national identity.”