Hague war court acquits Croat Generals Gotovina and Markac

 

Author and Balkan commentator Tim Judah: "The ruling suggests that there was no conspiracy to commit war crimes"

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A war crimes court in The Hague has overturned the convictions of two Croatian generals charged with atrocities against Serbs in the 1990s.

Appeals judges ordered the release of Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac.

In 2011 they were sentenced to 24 years and 18 years respectively over the killing of ethnic Serbs in an offensive to retake Croatia's Krajina region.

The men arrived in Zagreb later on Friday to a hero's welcome. But their release was condemned in Serbia.

'Final judgement'

At the scene

Celebrations here in General Gotovina's hometown went on long into the night.

People danced in the main square in front of the church and let off fireworks. Many of them were swathed in large Croatian flags.

The bars and cafes in this small seaside town on the Adriatic coast were doing a roaring business.

Two girls said they had come all the way from Zagreb - saying that they couldn't stay away.

One young man said it was an important moment: "The war actually ended now, I think. The aggression finished in 1995, but the legal issues and everything has finished now."

Many Croatians see this acquittal as a vindication - not just for the generals, but for Croatia's reputation, as it prepares to join the European Union.

The EU is likely to be much more popular now, one man said.

On Friday morning, the presiding judge at the tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, Theodor Meron, said the court had entered "a verdict of acquittal" for Gen Gotovina and Gen Markac, both aged 57.

Last year the two men were convicted of murder, persecution and plunder.

Judges at the time ruled that they were part of a criminal conspiracy led by late Croatian President Franjo Tudjman to "permanently and forcibly remove" the Serb civilian population from Krajina.

But on Friday, Judge Meron said there had been no such conspiracy.

The appeals judges also said the 2011 trial chamber had "erred in finding that artillery attacks" ordered by Gen Gotovina and Gen Markac on Krajina towns "were unlawful".

The two former generals have always argued that they did not deliberately attack civilians.

Court officials also said prosecutors would not appeal against the ruling, describing it as "the final judgement".

Neither defendant showed emotion in court, but their supporters in the gallery hugged each other and clapped after the verdict.

Start Quote

The UN war crimes court has lost all credibility”

End Quote Rasim Ljajic Serbian Deputy Prime Minister

In Zagreb's main square, thousands of people - who watched the proceedings live on giant TV - burst into applause.

"Our generals are heroes because they risked their lives to save our country and liberate the people," student Andjela Anic, 26, was quoted as saying by the AFP news agency.

"The verdict confirms everything that we believe in Croatia: that generals Gotovina and Markac are innocent," Croatian President Ivo Josipovic said.

On Thursday, candle-lit vigils were held in Zagreb and Catholic churches around the country as war veterans and bishops asked supporters to "raise their voices against injustice".

After the verdict, the two former generals were driven from The Hague to nearby Rotterdam airport before boarding the government plane to fly back home.

"I think it is only fair to get the boys back home," Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic told reporters.

'Move backwards'

Analysis

The acquittal has been universally welcomed in Croatia and, equally, almost universally condemned in Serbia.

It means that no Croats from Croatia (as opposed to Croats from Bosnia-Hercegovina) have been convicted by the UN's war crimes tribunal.

For Croats, this vindicates their belief that their generals are heroes and not war criminals; and for Serbs it consolidates a deeply held belief that the tribunal is a kangaroo court, whose main aim was to vilify and convict Serbs.

The core of the case was that the generals were part of a conspiracy, a "joint criminal enterprise" along with late Croatian President Franjo Tudjman to "permanently remove" the Serbs from what was then their self-proclaimed breakaway state in Croatia.

In simple language, they were accused of a plot to ethnically cleanse the region and up to 200,000 did indeed flee or were ethnically cleansed.

The appeal reverses that finding and hence says that there was no joint criminal enterprise.

The fact that crimes were committed during the Croatian retaking of Krajina is not contested and there have been convictions in the Croatian courts for this.

But the core of the matter today is that the tribunal in The Hague is saying that there was no over-arching plan to, in effect, commit war crimes.

Meanwhile, Serbia's President Tomislav Nikolic condemned the verdict as "political", saying it "will open old wounds".

Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Rasim Ljajic said The Hague tribunal had "lost all its credibility", Serbia's Beta news agency reported.

Mr Ljajic said the appeals decision was "proof of selective justice which is worse than any injustice".

He added that it was "a move backwards and the public opinion of the tribunal (in Serbia) will be worse than it already is".

Gen Gotovina and Gen Markac were last year convicted over the Croatian offensive in Krajina, which had been under Serbian control since the start of the war in 1991.

About 200,000 ethnic Serbs were driven from Croatia in 1995 and at least 150 were killed in a military offensive in Krajina known as Operation Storm.

The operation to retake the region was ordered by Mr Tudjman. The Croatian leader died in 1999 while under investigation by The Hague tribunal.

The aftermath of the war is a key issue both in Croatia's domestic politics and its external relations.

The European Union made it clear to former Yugoslav republics that they will not be considered for membership until war criminals were brought to justice.

Croatia is expected to join the EU in July 2013.

 

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  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 446.

    @LB Yes, I know about UN plan Z4. That was probably a very wrong decision. But then again, it was probably already too late for diplomacy. I guess that the Serbian war-criminals in power there were fearing that justice would get them if they integrate. Also, Croatia accepted a plan just as a start for negotiation, not in full. Again, innocent people suffered because of psychopaths at both sides.

  • Comment number 445.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 444.

    http://www.icty.org/x/cases/gotovina/acjug/en/121116_judgement.pdf

    Fausto Pocar noticed " ... I fundamentally dissent from the entire Appeal Judgement, which contradicts any sense of justice." Judge Carmel Agius wrote: "... I strongly disagree that Gotovina’s and Markač’s relevant grounds of appeal should be granted... Read it!

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 443.

    @Croatia_Freedom:

    Dignity? No they didn't. They cried in the streets, cut themselves with glass, and Jadranka Kosor looked stunned when they were found guilty because she was planning on holding a major welcome home party. You all behaved like spoiled children who couldn't believe that your country was as guilty in committing crimes against humanity as Serbia.

  • Comment number 442.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 441.

    Those people who are against this court decision are only raged Serbs or their friends. Croats accepted with dignity their first degree sentence. Croats always accepted international law, history, Euro-Atlantic alliance, western ideas, Croatia is a country of equal society, many tourists visit Croatia, they leave Croatia with good memories, many of them return back and visit Croatia for decades.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 440.

    #433 Yes, but the 1974 SFRY Constitution also explicitly prohibited unilateral declarations of independence (Art 5 part 3; Art 203; Art 244; and Art 283) which would change the borders of SFRY. Therefore, the declarations were illegal, because they were unilateral.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 439.

    @426 no consensus was possible, nationalism was rampant on both sides, the only solution was to recognize the republics in their borders as Badinter arbitration concluded.
    I hold Milošević and Army leaders responsible the most as they tried to force Croatian people into subbmission and were not ready to negotiate peaceful separation. Then it exploded iterally on Croat heads and was beyond help

  • Comment number 438.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 437.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 436.

    This is a slap in the face to all young, smart, educated people in all these countries, people who didn’t divide generals on “their” and ours”. We wanted all of them to be punished for destroying our youth, for making our parents to go through what they did. We are the ones who suffered only because “the kings” wanted to play war. And now the kings go free. And I cry.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 435.

    Thank you Europe for showing us that there is no justice in this world! This news made me remember August 4, 1995 when as a little kid in Croatia I watched my city in flames. We had one hour, just one hour to leave our homes and our lives forever before Croatian army entered the city. Many of those who stayed didn't live to tell their story.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 434.

    What happened to command responsibility?

  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 433.

    Elborough, former Yugoslavia (first FNRJ then SFRJ) was constituted from free will choice of several nations to form the federation. 1974 constitution ammenmends further strenghtened the right of Republics to separate.
    And to the Wleiss - Aug 1995, 2 days before operation Storm, Serbs rejected UN plan Z4 which granted full autonomy (including local police, etc.). They rejected it!!

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 432.

    I'm not saying it's only Serbian fault I'm just putting facts over here:Milosevic clearly wanted to dominate all of the old Yugoslavia, but when he realised that he could not, he switched to another option, that of a Greater Serbia. In 1989 Milosevic abolished Kosovo's autonomy. Croats and Slovenes feared that they were next in line.

  • Comment number 431.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 430.

    375. Marko , not really. There really were innocent Serbian victims in the process of liberation of Croatia from Serbian occupation in 1995, and you can be sure that the current Croatian government will prosecute the as of yet unknown perpetrators of these crimes to the full extent of the law. But that is not the reason to have innocent generals in prison for something that they didn't do.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 429.

    Of course if Serbs with the help of the army succeeded in their attempt to redraw the borders by brute force EU and UN would probably excepted that. Fortunately for Croatia, Croats fought with heart for their freedom and the ONLY country they had. Most of the Serbs in Serbia except nationalists did not want to have anything with the war, but supported the rebels as long as it was with words only.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 428.

    @nevermind Yes it is. Because Serbs were a majority in those areas. When Albanians and Hungarians in Serbia gained autonomous provinces, Serbs weren't given any autonomy in Croatia. Which sparked anger. As a consolation, they were given a status of a constitutional nation of Croatia, equal to Croats. Then Croatia abolished it with independence just as Milosevic diminished Kosovo autonomy.

  • Comment number 427.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

 

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