Yesterday the ICTY delivered its very final appeals judgment, in the case of Prlic et al, finding all of the defendants – political and military leaders of Bosnian Croats – guilty of crimes against Bosnian Muslims, and affirming the sentences passed on them by the trial chamber (summary; judgment). Yesterday, also, one of the defendants in the case, Slobodan Praljak, a general during the Bosnian conflict but by formal training a rather eclectic individual with degrees in philosophy, sociology, and theatre from the University of Zagreb, committed suicide in the courtroom. He did so by standing up in the dock, loudly declaiming to the judges that: “Slobodan Praljak is not a war criminal and I reject your judgment with contempt” [yes he did that very nice thing of referring to himself in the third person], and then drinking a vial of poison in full view of the (visibly shocked) judges, and the cameras. The video of this dramatic one-upmanship of Socrates and Hermann Goering, the first (and hopefully last) for an international courtroom, is here.
Like in the Mladic case, the reaction to the judgment was predictably nationalist and predictably depressing. The prime minister of Croatia – a member state of the EU – completely rejected the judgment, saying that it constituted a grave moral injustice against the defendants and the Croatian people as a whole. So did the Croat member (and current chairman) of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, who stated that Praljak was prepared to sacrifice his very life to show to the world and to a political court that he was in fact innocent. This martyrdom narrative is now bound to feed Croat nationalism for a long, long time. The principal reason for all this ire is not so much the conviction as such, but the Appeals Chamber’s confirmation of the finding at trial that the defendants participated in a joint criminal enterprise together with leaders from Croatia, including President Tudjman, whose purpose was to consolidate a Croat entity in Bosnia through the ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims. This is also coupled with the findings about Croatia’s control over Bosnian Croat forces and the characterization of the armed conflict as international, i.e. inter-state, in nature.
What of the judgment more generally? It is very long (more than 1400 pages), longer than most ICTY appeals judgments. This is largely the product of numerous problems, errors in law and reasoning in the trial judgment – itself caused to no small degree by the peculiarities of the presiding trial judge (remember the Seselj acquittal? Yes, that guy.). Yet despite the many problems, and reversals on numerous points, the Appeals Chamber essentially endorsed the basic factual and culpability account of the trial judgment, saying that the totality of the crimes for which the defendants have been convicted suffices for the sentences they have been given. Throughout its judgment the Appeals Chamber is in a constructive, repair mode in relation to the trial judgment, especially when compared to the hypercritical deconstructivism in the Gotovina judgment.
There are many legally interesting issues in the case of broader import. First, the Chamber’s approach to the classification of the armed conflict in Bosnia and the scope of application of the Geneva Conventions. Second, similarly, the Chamber’s application of the law of occupation, and its finding that Croatia was occupying parts of Bosnia through its proxies. Third, and most controversially, its reversal of the majority trial chamber finding that the destruction of the Old Bridge (Stari Most) in Mostar constituted a war crime of wanton destruction of property not justified by military necessity. Judge Pocar dissented on this point very energetically. Essentially the Chamber found that (1) the bridge was a military objective, as it was being used by Bosnian Muslim forces; (2) therefore the destruction of the bridge could not be ‘wanton’, even if it was disproportionate in its impact on the civilian population under IHL; (3) the Trial Chamber found no other property destroyed in this event; (4) therefore an element of the crime was missing or unproved. The judgment thus does not directly engage with the ‘pure’ IHL proportionality question, as the majority and dissent did at trial. Finally, the analysis of JCE is very dense and fact-specific; one particularly interesting set of issues dealt with the inconsistent terminology used in the French original of the trial judgment and its impact on the relevant mens rea standard.