News 15 Apr 11

Croatian General Gotovina Sentenced to 24 Years

The UN war crimes tribunal has found retired Croatian general Ante Gotovina guilty of persecution, murder and other war crimes against Serb civilians and sentenced him to 24 years in prison.

Croatians await the verdicts of the generals | Photo by: FoNet/AP

The court also announced its verdicts against two other generals tried alongside Gotovina. Ivan Cermak was found not guilty on all counts, while Mladen Markac, like Gotovina, was found guilty on all counts except one. Markac was sentenced to 18 years in prison.

The verdicts of the generals, considered to be war heros by many in Croatia, can be appealed.

The generals were accused for their role in the 1995 Croatian offensive known as Operation Oluja (Storm), which was launched to recover territory seized by Serbian forces since the beginning of the war.

The court found that Gotovina and Markac planned and led members of the Croatian military forces and special police in an effort to forcibly and permanently remove the ethnic Serb population from the Krajina region of Croatia.

The two retired generals were found guilty of persecution, deportation, plunder of private and public property, destruction, murder, inhumane acts and cruel treatement. They were found not guilty on one count, forcible transfer.

In its judgment, the court found that Gotovina and Markac were members of a joint criminal enterprise that also included then president Franjo Tudjman and other members of Croatia's political and military leadership.

The trial chamber said that the members of the joint criminal enterprise planned Operation Storm, which aimed to remove Croatian Serbs from the Krajina region through force or the threat of force. It also found that members of the Croatian military forces and the special police committed a high number of crimes against the Serb population, including deportation, persecution, and unlawful attacks.

While estimates vary widely, it is believed that some 200,000 Serbs either fled or were expelled from Croatia during the offensive, and between 700 and 1,900 civilians were killed.

While noting that a war was ongoing in Croatia during the period leading up to Operation Storm and that crimes had been committed against Croats, the court said that it was not addressing crimes committed prior to the offensive nor the lawfulness of resorting to war.

“This case was about whether Serb civilians in the Krajina were the targets of crimes and whether the Accused should be held criminally liable for these crimes.”

Ordinary Croats and the country's leaders have expressed shock over the court's findings that the crimes committed during Operation Storm constituted a joint criminal enterprise that included members of Croatia's wartime political and military leadership, and that it aimed to permanently remove the Serb population from Krajina.

Many in Croatia believe that the offensive was a legitimate military action taken to regain territory that had been seized by Serb forces.

Croatian President Ivo Josipovic told reporters on Friday afternoon that whatever the verdict, it does not bring into question the legitimacy and legality of the Homeland War and its military operations.

Josipovic added that Croatia was aware that crimes had been committed in the Homeland War on all sides and that the Croatian judiciary was prosecuting those crimes, regardless of who had committed them.

Gotovina, arguably the most senior Croatian to be tried at the court, is celebrated by many in Croatia for his role in the war for Croatian independence, referred to in the country as the Homeland War.

Some two thousand people gathered in Zagreb's central square to hear the judgements live, and booed and hissed when the court announced that the two generals had been found guilty. No incidents were reported.

After the verdicts were announced, Croatia's Prime Minister, Jadranka Kosor, appealed for calm.

In a televised address, she said the government found it unacceptable that the UN court considered Croatian wartime authorities responsible for the persecution and expulsion of Serbs from Krajina. She called Operation Storm a legitimate military action.

"We are not afraid of the truth. We are proud of our victories and of all those that made them possible," she said.

She thanked citizens and veterans for accepting the verdicts with dignity, and said that she would hold a government session in the afternoon to discuss her cabinet's next steps.

Croatians await Gotovina verdict
Croatians await the verdicts bearing flags reading: 'EU, No Thank You' | Photo by: FoNet/AP

1,500 Croatian war veterans marched through Zagreb on Thursday evening in support of Gotovina and the two other generals, and they have announced plans for another protest in the capital on Saturday.

Josip Jurcevic, of the association "Action for a Better Croatia", which will join the rally this weekend, said that April 15 would be a D-Day for Croatia, adding that it was not just the generals who were on trial but the entire country for "a joint criminal enterprise" as alleged in the indictment.

A statement from the Croatian Bishops Conference before the verdict called on Croats to remain calm, while expressing dissatisfaction with the Hague tribunal's assessment of Operation Storm.

"Just as we have called on believers to pray and fast for a just verdict, we now appeal to Croatian citizens to be calm and dignified," a statement by the Catholic bishops said.

"The Hague tribunal had not justly assessed the fact that Croatia was a victim of Serbian aggression," the statement added.

Croatian Serb refugees in Serbia, meanwhile, say they hope the verdict will clear the way for a substantive dialogue with Croatia on outstanding problems concerning housing, property and other difficulties they face as refugees and returnees.

The prosecution had asked the court to sentence Gotovina to 27 years, Markac to 23 years and Cermak to 17 years. The defence asked for all three to be acquitted.

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