By Drazen Remikovic and Ivana Jovanovich
Two Croatian generals convicted last year of war crimes and the killings of ethnic Serbs had their sentences overturned on Friday (November 16th), triggering joyful celebrations in Croatia and disbelief in Serbia.
A war crimes court in The Hague ordered the release of Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac, who had been sentenced to 24 years and 18 years, respectively, for their roles in an offensive to retake Croatia’s Krajina region. Judges had ruled that the men were part of a criminal conspiracy, led by former Croatia President Franjo Tudjman, to expel Serbs from the region.
Their convictions were overturned Friday in a 3-2 ruling by the appeals court, which ruled that prosecutors had failed to prove that the conspiracy existed. About 10,000 war veterans and civilians gathered at capital Zagreb’s main square to watch the live broadcast from The Hague based court on a giant screen and cheered when the ruling was released.
“It is now officially confirmed that those people didn’t do anything and that they were in jail for nothing. Those men are our heroes. Right now, they should ask from The Hague court to recoup them the time spend in jail. Today, the entire Croatia is celebrating,” Risto Ratar, 53, of Zagreb, told SETimes.
Nenad Santalab, president of the Croatian Association of Veterans, told SETimes that he was pleased and surprised by the ruling.
“The verdict removed a huge burden of the Croatian peoples’ back,” he said. “This is also proof that individuals must respond for all the crimes that were committed on all sides, that is, those who have actually committed war crimes. Not those who did not even know about it.”
In parliament, Serb representatives voiced their disappointment with the verdict.
“Serbs would certainly be outraged by this ruling and it is now clear that this decision was made under political pressure. It is impossible that the first-instance verdict is so much different than the second level,” Milan Rodic, the president of the Serbian People’s Party from Croatia, told SETimes.
Serbia Deputy Prime Minister Rasim Ljajic said the tribunal had “lost all credibility,” according to Serbia’s Beta news agency.
Kenan Hajdarevic, an MP of Liberal Democratic Party, also disagreed.
“The whole region is in delicate condition, now, and the achieved level of reconciliation will become more weak after the wave drives with the judgment in this case which is symbolically important,” he told SETimes. “The decision of the tribunal and its interpretation has created, among Serbs who died or suffered in the war, suffering and agonizing feeling of enduring trauma of unpunished crimes. This epilogue is dangerous and we must do everything in not to be annulled all the achieved gains in the punishment of crimes, the international and national level in Croatia and Serbia.”
Jelena Milic, director of the Center for Euro-Atlantic Studies in Belgrade, was disappointed in the ruling.
“This fact that the difference between the judgments of the first and second panels, makes me confused and caused some discomfort, especially when it comes of Gotovina case,” she told SETimes. “I think this is very bad and multiple dangerous judgment firstly because of unquestionable victims of Oluja and their families, as well, but also because of the whole concept of transitional justice which those who have been promoting it have not had the understanding in the whole region. Also, the fact that there are a lot of war criminals who are not convicted still so this judgment is going to demotivate further work and believe that justice could be reached.”
Gotovina and Markac led Operation Storm, a 1995 military operation to retake land that had been controlled by Serbia for four years. Approximately 150,000 Croatian soldiers captured the region in four days in what has been call the largest European land offensive since World War II. An estimated 600 Serbs were killed and 200,000 displaced from their homes.
Gotovina, Markac and General Ivan Cermak were indicted in 2001 by the war crimes court for alleged offenses carried out against Serb forces and civilians. Cermak and Markac were taken into custody, but Gotovina fled and remained free until December 2005, when he was captured by Spanish police in the Canary Islands.
Their trial started in 2008. The trial court convicted Gotovina and Markac in 2010, while Cermak was acquitted.