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Croatian generals' war crime convictions overturned

Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac had been convicted of multiple crimes, including murder and deportation, committed during Croatia's 1995 ethnic cleansing campaign against Serbs.

By Mike CorderAssociated Press / November 16, 2012

War veterans celebrate during the live broadcast from the International War Crimes Tribunal in Zagreb. Appeals judges at the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal have overturned the convictions of two Croat generals, Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac, for crimes against humanity and war crimes committed against Serb civilians in a 1995 military blitz.

Nikola Solic/AP

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The Hague

The Yugoslav war crimes tribunal overturned the convictions of two Croat generals on Friday for murdering and illegally expelling Serb civilians in a 1995 military blitz, and ordered both men to be freed immediately.

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The decision, by a 3-2 majority in the UN court's five-judge appeals chamber, is one of the most significant reversals in the court's 18-year history and overturns a verdict that dealt a blow to Croatia's self-image as a victim of atrocities, rather than a perpetrator, during the Balkan wars in the 1990s.

The ruling triggered scenes of rapture in court and among Croat war veterans watching the ruling on big screens in the capital, Zagreb, but also triggered fury in Serbia where it was seen as further evidence of anti-Serb bias at the tribunal. Even liberal Serbs warned it created a sense of injustice and could stir nationalist sentiments.

Neither Ante Gotovina nor Mladen Markac showed any emotion as Presiding Judge Theodor Meron told them they were free men, but their supporters in the court's packed public gallery cheered and clapped.

On a lawn outside the tribunal, supporters sang, waved a Croat flag and sipped champagne, while the generals were returned to their jail cells to complete release paperwork before being flown back to Croatia, likely Friday afternoon.

A convoy of minibuses with a police escort sped out of the jail in the early afternoon, believed to be carrying the generals to an airport.

"I think right now what he wants to do is go home to his wife, his little boy, his daughter," said Mr. Gotovina's American lawyer, Greg Kehoe.

Gotovina and Mr. Markac were sentenced to 24 and 18 years respectively in 2011 for crimes, including murder and deportation. Judges ruled both men were part of a criminal conspiracy led by former Croat President Franjo Tudjman to expel Serbs.

Serbia claims that some 600 Serbs were killed and more than 200,000 driven from their homes during the operation.

But the appeals judges said prosecutors failed to prove the existence of such a conspiracy, effectively clearing Croatia's entire wartime leadership of war crimes in the operation known as Operation Storm.

The operation came at the end of Croatia's battle to secede from the crumbling Yugoslavia and involved grabbing back land along its border with Bosnia that had earlier been occupied by rebel Serbs.

"Does this vindicate that particular operation as a proper and just attempt to bring back this land under Croatia? Of course," Mr. Kehoe said.

Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic called the ruling "an important moment for Croatia."

The country's liberal president, Ivo Josipovic, said it was "proof that the Croatian army did not take part in a criminal enterprise" and "a symbolic satisfaction for all victims of the war."

Vesna Skare Ozbolt, former legal adviser of late President Tudjman, said the verdict "corrects all wrongs about our just war," and "proves that there was no ethnic cleansing in Croatia and that it was all lies."

Mr. Tudjman died in 1999, while under investigation by the tribunal.

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