Croatia’s Prime Minister, Jadranka Kosor, has appealed for calm and asked Croats to accept the judgments on the three generals on Friday “with dignity”.
The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, ICTY, will rule whether or not the generals are guilty of war crimes 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.
Ante Gotovina, Ivan Cermak and Mladen Markac are accused of having participated in a joint criminal enterprise through the operation, which, the prosecution alleges, aimed to forcibly and permanently remove the ethnic Serb population from the Krajina region of Croatia.
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. The men are also charged with large-scale destruction and with the systematic plunder of ethnic Serbian villages and homes.
The prosecution has 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.
Gotovina, arguably the most senior Croatian to be tried at the court, is a hero to many in Croatia for his role in the war for Croatian independence. A guilty verdict is expected to provoke strong reaction in the country.
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 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.