Ante Gotovina, a swashbuckling former Croatian general who many in Zagreb view as a national liberator, was sentenced Friday to 24 years in jail for war crimes and crimes against humanity for carrying out a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Serbs.
The United Nations war crimes tribunal at The Hague also sentenced Mladen Markac, one of Mr. Gotovina's commanders, to 18 years for helping carry out a military offensive known as "Operation Storm," which the court said aimed to rid Serbs from the Krajina region of Croatia through persecution, deportation, and murder. The goal, the court said, was to repopulate the mainly Serb region with Croats.
The imprisonment of Gotovina, whose sentence was met with protests in Croatia today, could intensify feelings of Croatian animosity toward the European Union. Croatia hopes to be accepted this year and join the EU – but that move would be subject to a national referendum.
Several thousand people gathered in the center of the Croatian capital of Zagreb to witness the verdict on television screens erected by Croatian veterans' organizations. They were vocal in their disappointment. More demonstrations are planned tomorrow.
Croatia's Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor called for calm, saying the verdict was not final. Nevertheless, demonstrators descended on the ruling HDZ Party offices to express their anger, some singing fascist songs from World War II.
The country will never allow the "legitimacy of the Patriotic War to be called into question," said President Ivo Josipović. Even if criminal intent did exist, which he said he doubts, it did not mean all those who took part were criminals.
Operation Storm saw the Croatian Army advance into Serb-controlled Krajina early on the morning of Aug. 4, 1995, shelling the town of Knin and driving its population from their beds.
Around 200,000 Serbs left Krajina in a few days, having made up the majority of the population since the 18th century. Only elderly, bedridden, and disabled people were left behind. Between 400 and 800 of those unable to get away were murdered, according to the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights. Mr. Markac commanded the special police responsible for many of the murders.
Friday's verdict was based on transcripts of a meeting on the Adriatic island of Brioni four days before Operation Storm in which plans to drive out the Serb population were drawn up, according to Dutch judge Alphons Orie. The defense denied the documents' authenticity.
From Foreign Legion to war criminal
Gotovina ran away from home at 16, first joining the merchant navy and, a year later, the French Foreign Legion. Later he provided military instruction to right-wing military junta in South America and was convicted of robbery and extortion in France.
When Croatia declared independence in the face of opposition from the Yugoslav Army in 1991, Gotovina's military experience won him the role of
colonel, taking time off to command Croat forces in Bosnia.
He was arrested in 2005 in Tenerife having gone on the run years earlier when he learned of his indictment for Operation Storm.