Friday, 16 November 2012

Gotovina conviction overturned

Former Croatian Army General Ante Gotovina.
(Source: AFP/Getty Images)
The most senior Croatian military officer charged with crimes during the Balkan war of the 1990s has had his conviction overturned by an appeals court.

Ante Gotovina, who was commander in the Split district of the Croatian army, was ordered by the court to be immediately released alongside Mladen Markac, a Croatian war-time police commander who had also been imprisoned.

The decisions effectively crush the convictions handed down to the two men by the Hague War Crimes tribunal in 2011, where Gotovina was given a 24-year prison sentence, whilst Markac was jailed for 18 years.

Gotovina and Markac had been convicted of crimes against humanity, including murder and deportation, for their part in a military operation in 1995 known as Operation Storm, which involved an offensive by the Croatian Armed Forces in re-taking control of the Krajina region - originally-Croat territory that had fallen into Serbian hands in 1991.

Although the result of the Storm operation was a total victory for the Croatian army - with outnumbered Serbian forces in the area surrendering after four days of fighting - the battle itself was far from pretty.

According to figures from the United Nations, more than 1,000 Serbian civilians were killed alongside hundreds of soldiers, while around 150,000 to 200,000 people became refugees.

Columns of Krajina Serb refugees depart from
the area following the Croat success in
Operation Storm.
The original convictions ruled that both Gotovina and Markac had been part of a criminal conspiracy led by former Croat president Franjo Tudjman to expel Serbs from the region.

However, the appeals judges said prosecutors failed to prove the existence of such a conspiracy - a stance that ultimately led to the pair's acquittal.

The decision to overturn the sentences were sure to draw markedly different reactions in Croatia and Serbia.

The anniversary of the beginning of Operation Storm (August 5) is celebrated with a public holiday in Croatia and to honour the soldiers involved in the offensive, while the day is generally one of mourning for Serbians.

News of the release of Markac and, especially, Gotovina, who is seen as a national hero, led to street celebrations across Croatian cities, with people said to have cried with joy as they took to the streets with fireworks and Croatian flags.

In Serbia, the story was much different, with online news portal Blic running with the headline: "Scandalous decision: Gotovina and Markac free as if there had been no Operation Storm."

Many in Serbia complain of anti-Serb bias from the War Crimes tribunal at The Hague, which currently has Bosnian-Serb wartime leaders Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic on trial for crimes relating to the Srebrenica massacre and the siege of Sarajevo. The charges they are facing include genocide and crimes against humanity.

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