A UN tribunal on Friday sentenced a former Croatian army general and a police chief to prison terms for war crimes committed as Croat forces retook control of the Krajina region in 1995. The sentences sparked outrage from Zagreb.
AFP - Judges sentenced two retired Croatian generals to lengthy jail terms Friday for war crimes committed in one of the bloodiest episodes of the 1991-95 Balkans conflict, angering supporters and the Zagreb government.
The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) gave Ante Gotovina 24 years and co-accused Mladen Markac 18 years for war crimes and crimes against humanity but acquitted third defendant Ivan Cermak.
The court infuriated Zagreb by backing the prosecution claim of a "joint criminal enterprise" with late Croatian president Franjo Tudjman, aimed at driving Croatian Serbs out of their "ancestral homelands" in the western Krajina region.
The prosecution said 324 Serbs were killed and "close to 90,000 Serbs were forcibly displaced with the clear intention that they never return" after an offensive led by Gotovina and dubbed Operation Storm that recaptured Krajina from Serb rebels in 1995.
The Croatian government swiftly condemned the judgement shown live in central Zagreb, and there were angry reactions among the 4,000 people who gathered to watch it on a public screen, but Serbia welcomed the verdict.
Former French legionnaire Gotovina, 55, is regarded as a national hero in Croatia for his role during the war sparked by the break-up of the former Yugoslavia.
The three defendants had denied the charges and Gotovina's lawyer Gregory Kehoe said he would appeal.
Prosecutors at the trial that opened in March 2008 accused Gotovina of having sought the "permanent removal of the ethnic Serb population from the Krajina region in Croatia" during the war for independence from Belgrade.
All three ex-generals were accused of aiding and abetting the murders of Krajina Serb civilians and prisoners of war by "shooting, burning and/or stabbing" them.
Markac was a former commander of the special police of Croatia's interior ministry while Cermak, an assistant defence minister from 1991 to 1993, headed troops alleged to have carried out "ethnic cleansing" of Serbs.
"The conduct of Gotovina amounted to a significant contribution to the joint criminal entreprise," the court ruled, citing his "order to unlawfully attack civilians and civilian objects", notably in shelling the towns of Benkovac, Knin and Obrovac.
The court concluded that the evidence did not establish that Cermak was a member of the joint criminal entreprise, or made any intentional and significant contribution to it.
Ivan Cermak, 61, returned home to Zagreb late Friday where he was welcomed by Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor.
Kosor slammed the court's finding "that the Croatian state leadership acted in a joint criminal enterprise against international law and UN conventions."
"For the government of Croatia this is unacceptable," she said.
Kosor said Storm was "a legitimate military operation with the objective of liberating Croatian territory from occupation".
"My government will do everything possible within the legal framework to get these qualifications withdrawn (on appeal)," she added.
Croatian President Ivo Josipovic said, "The convictions... and the ruling, especially the thesis about the existence of a joint criminal enterprise that included the highest political and military leadership of Croatia, is a serious political and judicial act that has shocked even me.
"We are aware crimes were committed but I am convinced that there was no joint criminal enterprise in the defence of Croatia" during the war.
The country's powerful Catholic Church also slammed the verdicts.
"When defending homeland is declared a criminal enterprise than it is a slap in the face, not to our people, but to Europe and the whole world," head of Croatia's bishops' conference Marin Srakic said.
After the verdict around 100 protesters, carrying Croatian flags and pictures of Gotovina, marched to the headquarters of the ruling HDZ party, blamed for not supporting veterans of the war.
"After today nothing will be the same. We announce a fight against those who brought Croatia into this situation," leading veteran Zvonimir Trusic said.
"Now we are officially criminals," a 50-year-old veteran called Marko said, while wartime interior minister Ivan Vekic labeled the verdicts a "defeat of Croatia."
Gotovina's lawyer Kehoe said, "I am very angry.
"It is almost as if many of the facts presented were completely ignored by the chamber."
In Serbia, President Boris Tadic, who has led efforts to reconcile the former enemies, said the sentences were passed in accordance with the law.
"More important than the verdicts is the fact that the tribunal established that ethnic cleansing was conducted," Serbia's Beta news agency quoted justice ministry Slobodan Homen as saying.
After the war, Gotovina spent almost four years on the run before he was finally arrested in a luxury hotel in the Spanish Canary Islands in December 2005.
The trial was the first and only one before the ICTY of Croats charged with war crimes committed against Serbs during the war in Croatia.
Date created : 2011-04-15