Former general Ante Gotovina is being tried for the persecution and murder of Croatian Serbs during the 1990s Balkan wars. The defense has portrayed him as a hero who helped put an end to the bloody conflict.
Former Croatian general Ante Gotovina went on trial for war crimes Tuesday, accused of unleashing a "nightmare" of persecution and murder on Croatian Serbs during the 1990s Balkan wars.
"This trial arises from the forcible elimination of Krajina Serbs from Croatia and the destruction of their community in August 1995," prosecutor Alan Tieger said at the opening of the trial in The Hague.
Gotovina, 52, and two other Croatian generals, Ivan Cermak and Mladen Markac, face charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity including persecution, murder and plunder during what was dubbed "Operation Storm".
The lightning military operation led to the recapture of Croatia's Serb-held Krajina region in 1995, crushing one of the last pockets of Serb resistance.
Between 150,000 and 200,000 Serbs fled or were forced to flee to Bosnia and Serbia during the offensive in which more than 150 Serb civilians died, according to the indictment.
Tieger said the operation left Krajina "a scarred wasteland of destroyed homes and villages," as Croatian troops led by Gotovina and his co-defendants "shelled towns and villages" and caused the "panic-stricken flight" of Serb civilians.
"For those who remained, largely the elderly and the infirm, life became a nightmare. While homes and villages were plundered and destroyed on a massive scale, many were murdered," he added.
Gotovina smiled broadly and waved at the public gallery before the start of the trial. He and his two co-defendants have denied all the charges.
The prosecution said Tuesday that Gotovina "planned and ordered" the artillery attacks in Operation Storm intended to drive Serbs out of Croatia.
"His troops engaged in widespread crimes against those Serbs who remained," Tieger added.
Cermak and Markac are also accused of playing key roles in Operation Storm.
Prosecutors say Cermak, 58,led so-called cleansing operations to clear the area of Serbs. Tieger described him as "effectively the military governor of the area" who actively tried to hide what was happening from international observers.
Markac, 52, was the assistant minister of the interior responsible for the police forces who took part in the operation.
Gotovina was arrested in December 2005, after almost four years on the run, in a luxury hotel in the Spanish Canary Islands.
Many in Croatia still see Gotovina as a hero who ended the 1991-1995 war in Croatia and his arrest sparked popular protests.
The general's defence is also stressing that Gotovina "ended the wars in Bosnia and Croatia" and fought against then Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic and therefore deserved praise, not a war crimes indictment.
"To label him a war criminal would be an injustice not only to him but to the victims whose suffering he ended when no one else in the international community would," his lawyers wrote in their pre-trial brief to the judges.
Ironically Gotovina's trial opens on the two-year anniversary of the death of Milosevic in the UN detention unit.
The erstwhile enemies apparently enjoyed good relations while they were both held in The Hague, as Gotovina led a string of other UN inmates in signing a special death notice "to a Hague comrade-in-arms" that appeared in Serbian newspapers.
Date created : 2008-03-11