12:46, December 03 74 0 theguardian.com

2017-12-03 12:46:04
Open door  
 Praljak and Goering: the suicides of two war criminals raise questions and tell a story

The suicide by poisoning of a Bosnian Croat war criminal in a courtroom at The Hague last week raised questions both contemporary and historical.

Slobodan Praljak, like the senior German Nazi Hermann Goering at Nuremberg in 1946, managed while in custody to acquire the means to thwart the due process of law at its climax.

Praljak, 72, after hearing a judge confirm a 20-year prison sentence for his crimes against Bosnian Muslims during the 1990s conflict, stood in the dock, raised hand to mouth, drank from a small container, denied being a war criminal and said he had taken poison.

The Guardian’s report at first included video of the act of self-harm, a rare event that calls for justification. The headline “War crimes suspect drinks poison” gave warning of the content. Shockingly violent images, often an issue for media decision-makers, were not a factor this time.

Deputy editor Paul Johnson told me that at first the event seemed like a disruptive stunt. The Guardian’s initial video was withdrawn when editors learned – from Croatian TV, well before the official announcement – that Praljak may have died. The revised video showed only the courtroom scenes immediately before and after Praljak’s act. In my view these steps were all reasonable in covering, with multimedia tools, an event of undoubted public interest.

After Praljak’s declaration, the presiding judge seemed visibly to struggle to process what he had just seen and heard. He halted proceedings, ordered the container not to be touched, and had the public gallery curtain drawn. The broadcast/webcast ceased.

We must await the police investigation, but it is not too soon to observe another similarity with Goering’s death: reflex attempts to control information.

Using fragments of the Guardian coverage from October 1946, I want to try to convey the enduring value of serious professional journalists as independent observers when authorities – judicial, executive, military – act in the public’s name.

“Hermann Goering last night died by his own hand. Two and a half hours before he was to be executed he took poison under the eyes of the American security guard watching his every movement through the grating in the door of his cell … [Goering] slipped a phial of cyanide of potassium into his mouth and crushed it with his teeth …

“While Goering was lying in the prison morgue, the 10 other Nazi leaders sentenced to death with him were hanged in the dusty-bomb-blasted gymnasium of the prison, its dirty walls lit up by 10 blazing lights … [Goering’s body] was taken in and placed beside the others after the hangings were over.”

Reporters who witnessed the executions were not permitted to “cable the news” for three hours, after which the deadlines of all but US newspapers had passed. “This is by no means the first time since the occupation that unnecessary secrecy and suppression have put the American press in a position of cornering news of world interest,” grumbled the Guardian’s correspondent.

“The burning question today, of course, is how Goering, in spite of constant observation and a daily inspection of his cell, came by the poison.”

Touring the prison, reporters questioned the chief officer about how Goering could have defeated precautions.

Suggestion: Poison was passed through the screen in the interview room.

[Officer’s answer]: Impossible; the glass division was non-shatterable.

Suggestion: It was concealed in a legal document. A: Each page was examined.

Suggestion: Goering hid the phial in his cell. A: The cells were completely searched in the absence of the prisoners.

Suggestion: A defence lawyer passed the poison. A: The lawyers were searched before each interview.

Suggestion: Could Goering have hidden the phial in his clothes? A: No, the clothes the prisoners wore in court were taken from them and searched. They did no repairs themselves.

Suggestion: Were the German prison staff trustworthy? A: Absolutely.

Suggestion: The phial was wedged into the binding of a library book. A: Each page was searched. The librarian is as reliable as I am.”

“ … A new mystery was disclosed by one officer, who said: “Two days before the hangings a strange square paper kite landed outside the gymnasium. There was a note on it with a number of inexplicable scribbles. Where the kite came from no one knows.”

“As we walked along the prison corridor, we saw Hess, haggard and gaunt, looking wildly out of cell number 13.” (Rudolf Hess died in prison in 1987.)

In 2005 the Guardian reported that, according to the Los Angeles Times, one of the Americans who had guarded Goering’s cell believed he had been the unwitting accomplice of a young German woman. At age 78, he recalled that she had persuaded him to take to Goering a fountain pen in which was concealed a phial of what the guard had been told was medicine.

As a correspondent wrote the day after Goering died, “the truth may never be known” about Praljak’s death. On that question and many others, we need journalists to be free to persist in being witnesses, questioners and communicators in the service of truth. As recent coverage shows, journalism is becoming harder to practise.

In brief: reading old newspapers often yields chance ironies, in ways that digital browsing does not. Next to the reporting from Nuremberg in the Guardian of 17 October 1946 is an item about the premier of then Yugoslavia, Marshal Tito, saying on Belgrade radio that his greatest desire was “good relations with all countries, far and near”.