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Gotovina Conviction Riles Croats, Mollifies Serbs

Former Croatia general seen as a victim at home and villain in neighbouring Serbia.
By Enis Zebic, Branka Mihajlovic

There were cries of anger in Croatia and nods of self-justification in Serbia last week following the Hague tribunal conviction of former Croatian army general Ante Gotovina and his co-defendant ex-special police commander Mladen Markac.

Croatians leaders said they would try to appeal the judgement, while for Serbs it was proof of their belief that the mass exodus of ethnic kin from Krajina during the Croatian army’s Operation Storm operation in 1995 was a part of a pre-conceived plan to expel them from the region.

On April 15, Gotovina was convicted at the Hague tribunal of ordering the unlawful and indiscriminate attacks on Serb civilians during the Storm offensive and sentenced to 24 years in prison, with credit for time served.

He was also found to be responsible for the deportation of at least 20,000 Serb civilians from Krajina, as well as the murder, persecution and cruel treatment of Serb civilians. In addition, he was convicted on counts of plunder and wanton destruction.

The only count that he was acquitted of, out of a total of nine, was forcible transfer.

Markac was also convicted on eight out of the nine counts in the joint indictment. He was sentenced to 18 years in prison with credit for time served.

The third co-defendant, Knin garrison commander Ivan Cermak, was acquitted of all charges

Croatian officials were shocked by the verdict against Gotovina and Markac and announced they would do everything they could to help lawyers representing the two former generals to launch an appeal.

Addressing the media shortly after the verdict was announced, Croatia’s prime minister Jadranka Kosor, who was visibly upset, made only a brief statement.

“My government will undertake all possible measures in line with the law so that the decision of the Hague tribunal’s trial chamber is annulled by the appeals judges. Our standpoint on Operation Storm is very clear: that was a legitimate military operation aimed at liberating Croatian territory from [Serb] occupation,” Kosor said.

From Croatia’s point of view, the most troubling aspect of the Gotovina judgement was the fact that the Hague judges determined that he was part of a joint criminal enterprise, JCE, with other members of the Croatian political and military leadership. According to the judges, the aim of this JCE was the “permanent removal of the Serb civilian population from the Krajina by force or threat or force”.

On July 31, 1995, Gotovina attended a meeting with other high-ranking officials about the upcoming military operation. According to Judge Alphons Orie, who read out the verdict on April 15, during this meeting Gotovina said that a “large number of civilians are already evacuating Knin and heading towards Banja Luka and Belgrade. That means that if we continue this pressure, probably for some time to come, there won’t be so many civilians, just those who have to stay, who have no possibility of leaving”.

The judge said that the then Croatian president Franjo Tudjman “was a key member of the joint criminal enterprise.

“Tudjman intended to repopulate the Krajina with Croats and ensured that his ideas in this respect were transformed into policy and action though his powerful position as president and supreme commander of the armed forces.”

Gotovina contributed to the “planning and preparation” of Operation Storm, ordered unlawful attacks on the four previously mentioned towns, the judge said, adding that the defendant “failed to make a serious effort to prevent and follow up on crimes reported to have been committed by his subordinates against Krajina Serbs”.

Commenting on the findings of the tribunal judges, Croatian president Ivo Josipovic said on April 15 that he was personally shocked by the part of the judgement relating to the JCE, which implied that Croatian political and military leaders planned and carried out ethnic cleansing of Krajina Serbs during Operation Storm.

“While we respect legal aspects of the tribunal's work, that does not mean we will accept political and historic aspects of the judgements rendered by this court. We'll always see our Homeland War as…a defensive war in which we managed to protect our freedom from aggression and criminal politics of [former Serbian president] Slobodan Milosevic,” Josipovic said.

However, Director of the Zagreb-based Centre for Facing the Past – Documenta, Vesna Terselic, said verdict was not unexpected.

“I am not surprised by this decision because the fact is that in August and September 1995, more than 600 civilians were killed and 22,000 houses burnt, and those guilty for these crimes have never been tried,” Terselic said.

“However, I think this verdict is shocking for the Croatian public primarily because they did not have enough information about the trial while it was ongoing, and in months and weeks before the verdict, politicians were saying they were expecting acquittals.”

A lawyer from Zagreb who worked at the Hague tribunal, Anto Nobilo, said the verdict might help Croats finally face up to their past.

“I think it's time Croatia heard what had happened in Krajina in 1995 and what has been systematically hidden from the public eye ever since. When it comes to joint criminal enterprise, I believe facts here are scarce and links among these facts are thin, unlike those relating to crimes committed during Operation Storm,” he said.

Thousands of Croatian citizens watched a live broadcast of the verdict in Zagreb’s main square, Ban Jelacic. Whistling and shouting, they expressed their dissatisfaction with the outcome.

One middle-aged resident of Zadar broke a window and cut himself with glass as a sign of protest against the verdict. In Gotovina’s hometown of Knin, the flag on Knin fortress was flown at half-mast.

However, in Serbia there was a sense of vindication at the outcome of the trial.

“We are satisfied because the Hague judges have found that the Croatian military and political leadership was responsible for the crimes committed during Operation Storm, and that the exodus of Serbs from Krajina was planned,” said Petar Dzodan, president of the Association of Serbs Expelled from Croatia and Krajina.

Svetlana Logar from a Belgrade-based agency for researching public opinion, Ipsos Strategic Marketing, believes the verdict will affect the way people in Serbia view the tribunal.

“It would be only natural to expect that the attitude of Serbian citizens towards the Hague tribunal now changes and becomes more positive. One of the biggest problems people in Serbia have had with the tribunal so far is the fact that the majority of indictees tried by this court have been of Serb nationality and they were the ones receiving the longest sentences,” she said.

“But after the verdict against Gotovina and Markac, one would expect that attitude to change, at least a little bit.”

Enis Zebic and Branka Mihajlovic are IWPR contributors in Zagreb and Belgrade respectively.

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