UN prosecutor urges Croatian leaders to face up to war-time past

The chief prosecutor of the UN war crimes court Sunday urged Croatian leaders to face up to what happened in the past and work towards reconciliation, after the suicide of a Bosnian Croat leader.

In dramatic scenes Wednesday, Slobodan Praljak swallowed poison before UN tribunal judges, just moments after they upheld his 20-year jail sentence for war crimes in the 1990s Balkans conflicts.

"It is unfortunate that Mr. Praljak made the choice to end his life," Serge Brammertz, chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), told AFP.

"But you will understand that my thoughts are with the victims and survivors of the crimes for which he was convicted," he added, in an email reply to questions from AFP.

The preliminary results of an autopsy by Dutch prosecutors Friday showed that Praljak, 72, likely died from heart failure after swallowing potassium cyanide.

The unprecedented incident is being investigated by both Dutch prosecutors and the ICTY, which is probing how he smuggled the bottle of poison into the tightly-guarded tribunal in The Hague.

The drama came as appeals judges upheld long jail terms on six former Bosnian Croat political and military leaders, who had denied committing crimes against Bosnian Muslims in the early 1990s.

"The final judgment in this case remains fully valid," Brammertz told AFP.

"Our job as prosecutors was to establish the facts and hold senior officials accountable, and that is what we did."

It was the final verdict handed down by the tribunal, which will close its doors on December 31 after 24 years prosecuting those behind the worst atrocities in Europe since World War II.

The judges confirmed that Praljak and his five Bosnian Croat co-defendants were part of a "joint criminal enterprise" to ethnically cleanse Bosnian Muslims in the war.

But Croatian officials have also been angered that the judges upheld the original trial's finding that the "ultimate purpose" of the criminal enterprise in Bosnia was shared by late Croatian president Franjo Tudjman, seen as the "father" of his country.

"It would have been hoped that Croatian officials and media would act more responsibly and promote acceptance of the facts, but that unfortunately is not what we are seeing," said Brammertz.

"Instead, among many there is again a refusal to respect the judicial process and the facts proved, and claims that convicted war criminals are in fact heroes," he said.

"This denial disrespects the victims."

Since Praljak's death, Croats have paid multiple tributes to the late general, laying flowers and lighting candles in town squares in Croatia and Bosnia.

And Croatia's Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic said the ICTY verdict was one of "deep moral injustice."

But Brammertz said the verdict was of "immense importance" and added, "one would hope that an EU member state would be focused more on reconciliation and finding agreement on the recent past."

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