Two Croatian generals acquitted by a United Nations court of atrocities against Serbs in 1995 returned home to a hero’s welcome as tens of thousands turned out in the capital to celebrate their freedom.
General Ante Gotovina and General Mladen Markac were released today after an appeals panel at the Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia ruled 3-2 to overturn a conviction for war crimes, Theodor Meron, the president of the panel, said today. The two were found guilty in April 2011 of the murder and persecution of Serbs in the 1995 Operation Storm, which ended the war following Croatia’s 1991 independence from Yugoslavia. Gotovina had been given 24 years in jail and Markac 18 years. Both are 57 years old.
“This is our joint victory,” Gotovina told a crowd, estimated by police at more than 100,000 on Zagreb’s main square, after the government flew him home. “The war belongs in the past, let’s look toward the future.”
The case closed as the former Yugoslav republic prepares to join the European Union in July and struggles to recover after three years of recession and economic stagnation. Croatia cooperated with the extradition of the generals to The Hague and supported their defense teams in claiming the generals couldn’t prevent the troops from committing crimes.
The UN court ruled today that there was no excessive shelling of four towns by the Croats and that the mass departure of Serbs couldn’t be described as a “deportation.” The ruling is a “final judgment” and won’t be appealed, court officials said.
“The verdict confirmed what we all believed, that Croatia didn’t commit ethnic cleansing and that Croatia justly liberated its territories,” President Ivo Josipovic told reporters in Zagreb. “Crimes were committed, and although the Croatian state is not responsible for crimes of individuals, it bears responsibility to prosecute and punish every crime.”
In Operation Storm, the Croatian army reclaimed swaths of land held by rebel Serbs, who since 1991 opposed Croatia’s drive to break away from the former Yugoslavia. While most Serbs fled the approaching Croat forces, murders and looting were reported after the Croatian army took over.
Thousands of Serbs in recent years have returned as their reintegration was a key element for Croatia to conclude EU membership talks.
While the verdict sparked scenes of jubilation across Croatia, the ruling party of Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic reacted angrily, saying the court “legalized a horrible crime” and accused the justices of making “political, rather than judicial” verdicts.
“We are disappointed with the treatment of Serbian people by international institutions, by their ignoring of facts and disrespect for the victims of the Storm offensive,” the party said in an e-mailed statement. “No one can annul what happened, or make us forget” what happened, it said.
For many Croats, the generals symbolize the country’s independence and the beginning of the operation is celebrated as a public holiday called Victory Day.
In its verdict last year, the court said that Gotovina was part of a “joint criminal enterprise,” along with former President Franjo Tudjman, Defense Minister Gojko Susak and Army Chief of Staff Janko Bobetko, all three of whom are now dead.