ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) — Slobodan Praljak, a former film and theater director turned wartime general, was always known for theatrics.
So, when the former Bosnian Croat military commander suddenly threw back his head and drank what he said was poison from a small bottle after his 20-year war crimes sentence was upheld by a U.N. court on Wednesday, many Croats watching the drama unfold on live TV thought it was yet another bluff.
But it wasn't. The 72-year-old silver-bearded Praljak died soon after being rushed from the U.N. tribunal to a nearby hospital.
The shocking scene was not unlike the suspenseful plays he once directed before becoming a military commander during the Balkan wars of the early 1990s.
"Judges, Slobodan Praljak is not a war criminal! I reject, with contempt, your verdict," Praljak shouted before drinking from the bottle.
Then, his voice rising theatrically, he declared: "That is poison that I drank."
The dramatic scene shocked Croatia, diverting attention from the convictions of Praljak and five other Bosnian Croat wartime military and political leaders for their part in a plot to violently carve out a Croat-dominated mini-state in Bosnia by killing and deporting Muslims.
Wednesday's ruling, which upheld a key finding that the late Croatian leader Franjo Tudjman was directly involved in the plot, could have major financial and political implications for Croatia, potentially triggering massive war damage claims and shaking the Bosniak-Croat mini-state within Bosnia that the two ethnic groups share.
A founder of Tudjman's Croatian Democratic Union party, Praljak was one of six Bosnian Croat political and military leaders who with significant support from neighboring Croatia turned against the Bosnian army during the 1992-95 war, trying to carve out an ethnically pure Croat region by force, just as Bosnian Serbs had done in other areas of Bosnia with help from Serbia.
Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic decried Wednesday's verdicts, calling Praljak's apparent suicide "his message" to Croatia to resist the consequences of the "unjust" ruling by the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia. Ironically, Praljak, who had already been jailed for 13 years before his 20-year sentence was upheld, could have soon walked free because convicts are generally released after serving two-thirds of their sentences.
Before the war, Praljak directed productions in theaters across Bosnia, notably in the southern city of Mostar, where he was accused of ordering the destruction of the city's Old Bridge, one of the most striking Ottoman monuments in the Balkans and a jewel of Bosnia's Islamic heritage.
"Mr.Praljak could have been a good director who would have made films about Mostar instead of destroying it," said Bosnian Muslim leader Bakir Izetbegovic, whose father Alija led the Muslims during the war.
Bosnian Croats on Wednesday lit candles in memory of Praljak in Mostar, where they held a church Mass.
Croatian analyst Zarko Puhovski predicted that Praljak could now be "depicted as a saint."
Associated Press writers Jovana Gec in Belgrade, Serbia, and Sabina Niksic, in Sarajevo, Bosnia, contributed to this report.