Back in 2005, the arrest of suspected Croatian war criminal Ante Gotovina was hailed as a significant step toward his home country's dream of ultimately joining the European Union. Now, more than seven years later, Croatia's EU membership is essentially a foregone conclusion -- and Gotovina is a free man once again.
The appeals chamber at the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in The Hague on Friday overturned guilty verdicts against Gotovina and fellow Croat general Mladen Markac in what is being called the most significant reversals in the court's history. The two had been sentenced in 2011 to 24 and 18 years behind bars respectively for crimes against humanity and war crimes relating to a 1995 attack on Serbian civilians.
The pair's original conviction hinged on the tribunal's acceptance of the existence of a plan led by the late Croatian President Franjo Trudjman to expel Serbs from Croatia. Three out of five judges in the appeals chamber, however, said that prosecutors failed to prove that such a plan existed. The ruling is nothing short of a clean legal slate for the country's entire wartime leadership.
Friday's ruling, said Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic, is "an important moment for Croatia." A former advisor to Trudjman, Skare Ozbolt, said it was "a victory of justice" according to the Associated Press. "It corrects all wrongs about our just war" and "proves that there was no ethnic cleansing in Croatia and that it was all lies."
Perhaps not surprisingly, the Serbian reaction was decidedly less enthusiastic. Vladimir Vukcevic, Serbia's war crimes prosecutor, called the verdict "scandalous" in an interview with the AP. "This was one of the biggest war crimes in the former Yugoslavia, murder, expulsion and endangering of several hundred thousand people and no one was held responsible."
'Worse than Any Injustice'
Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Rasim Ljajic, who is his country's liaison with the Hague tribunal, echoed the sentiment. "With the acquittal, the tribunal has lost all credibility," he told Reuters. "What happened today is a testimony to the selective justice which is worse than any injustice."
Gotavina and Markac had been convicted of perpetrating the expulsion of some 200,000 Serbs from their homes in Croatia in 1995. Some 600 Serbs died in the course of the massive flight, which occurred during a Croatian offensive to take back the Krajina region, an area that had been taken by the Serbs in 1991. The pair of Croatian generals had been among the few convicted by the Hague tribunal who were not Serbs.
The appeals panel, however, found that there was no evidence of a conspiracy to ethnically cleanse the region of its Serb population. "The Appeals Chamber unanimously found that the Trial Chamber erred in concluding that all artillery impact sites located more than 200 meters from a target deemed legitimate served as evidence of unlawful attacks against towns in the Krajina region of Croatia," said the tribunal in a press release. "The majority also held that the Trial Chamber erred in finding the existence of a joint criminal enterprise whose purpose was the permanent and forcible removal of Serb civilians from the Krajina region."
The tribunal is currently continuing proceedings against two additional defendants accused of war crimes, the Bosnian Serb wartime leaders Radovan Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic.