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Gotovina finally in the dock, as divisions over his indictments continue to simmer back in Croatia.
By Helen Warrell
Croatian General Ante Gotovina, recently arrested after four years on the run, appeared in court this week to face war crimes charges related to the final chapter of the Croatian conflict.

Gotovina, who appeared in court at the Hague tribunal for the first time on December 12, pleaded not guilty to four counts of crimes against humanity and three of violations of the laws and customs of war for his alleged role in Operation Storm, a Croatian army offensive to reclaim Serb-held Krajina in August 1995.

The former general is charged with individual criminal responsibility for the persecution and forced displacement of the Serb population in Krajina, as well as the plunder and destruction of property belonging to ethnic Serbs across the region.

As commander of Operation Storm in Krajina’s southern sector, the accused is also charged with responsibility for failing to prevent or punish murder and other inhumane acts against Serbs, perpetrated by Croatian army troops under his control.

Gotovina disappeared in 2001, when an indictment was issued against him. Since then, his whereabouts have been the subject of intense speculation. He was finally arrested in the Canary Islands, nearly three months after the Croatian authorities confirmed to the tribunal’s prosecutor that he was in Spain.

When asked by Judge Carmel Agius where he had been living before his arrest, the accused answered “Tenerife, in Spain”, but refused to give an exact address despite further questioning.

The judge asked for the full indictment against Gotovina to be read in court, reading out the list of 32 people allegedly killed under the general’s authority during Operation Storm and its aftermath. He stated that the court’s responsibility to the victims’ families made it necessary to re-iterate the charges.

The court was crowded with Croatian and foreign journalists, and special dispensation was given to photographers to take pictures within the courtroom.

For administrative reasons, Gotovina’s own lawyers, Luka Misetic and Marin Ivanovic, were not able to appear in court, so the accused was represented by a duty counsel. The lawyers followed the proceedings from the public gallery.

Misetic told journalists later that they would be filing a motion for Gotovina’s provisional release. Misetic refused to confirm or deny to the Croatian news agency HINA, whether he had been in touch with Gotovina while he was at large.

Gotovina’s arrest has been widely welcomed in the international community. His continued liberty was an obstacle to Croatia’s bid to join NATO and the European Union.

Croatia was split over Gotovina’s original indictiment and the divisions remain following his arrest.

President Stjepan Mesic told Croatian Radio that it was imperative that those who aided the general’s disappearance “must answer” for their crimes. He said that Gotovina’s lavish lifestyle – “hiding in the most luxurious hotels, travelling aboard the most luxurious means of transport”, while on the run must have cost an “enormous” sum of money.

Whereas Mesic’s political rival Croatian prime minister Ivo Sanader has been promising his government’s financial support to enable Gotovina’s family to visit him in The Hague every month.

Gotovina’s lawyer Luka Misetic told HINA that he was due to meet Croatian government officials in Zagreb this week to discuss financial assistance for the general’s defence.

A day before he appeared in court, a reported 70,000 of the general’s supporters attended a rally in Split organised by a veterans group. Protesters called on the government to help Gotovina with his defence and to lobby for his case to be transferred for trial in Croatia. A demonstration in Zagreb’s main square on the same day drew only 500 protesters.

The chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte has confirmed that they will apply for Gotovina’s trial to be joined with that of two other Croatian generals, Ivan Cermak and Mladen Markac, who are also charged with participating in the “joint criminal enterprise” of Operation Storm. Cermak and Markac are out on provisional release, and their trial is expected to start in the middle or end of next year.

Helen Warrell is an IWPR reporter in The Hague. Goran Jungvirth in Zagreb also contributed to this report.

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