Appeals judges at the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal have overturned the convictions of two Croat generals for crimes against humanity and war crimes committed against Serb civilians in a 1995 military blitz.
Neither Ante Gotovina nor Mladen Markac showed any emotion at the decision today, but their supporters in the court’s packed public gallery cheered and clapped as Presiding Judge Theodor Meron ordered both men freed immediately.
Gotovina and 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.
But appeals judges said no such conspiracy existed.
The decision, by a 3-2 majority in the 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 generals are likely to be returned to their jail cells to complete release paperwork before being freed. They are then expected to quickly return to Croatia.
Gotovina and 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.
But the appeals judges said prosecutors failed to prove the existence of such as conspiracy, effectively clearing Croatia’s entire wartime leadership of war crimes in the operation known as Operation Storm.
While supporters of the generals at home in Croatia cheered and set off fireworks, the acquittals will enrage hardline opponents of the UN court in Serbia who accuse its judges of anti-Serb bias.
The headline in the Blic daily’s online edition read: “Scandalous decision: Gotovina and Markac free as if there had been no Operation Storm.”
Some 600 Serbs were killed and more than 200,000 were driven from their homes during the operation.
Gotovina’s and Markac’s convictions were two of the few at the tribunal set up in 1994 to punish perpetrators of atrocities against Serb civilians.
Gotovina, 55, is especially popular among Croatian nationalists. The charismatic former soldier fought in the French Foreign Legion in the 1980s and spent four years on the run from justice before being captured in the Canary Islands in December 2005.
The verdicts against the two generals had triggered anti-Western sentiments among nationalist Croatians ahead of the country’s planned European Union entry in July 2013.
After the convictions last year, thousands of Croatian war veterans massed in Zagreb and ripped EU flags and denounced Croatia’s leaders who have made EU membership their goal.
The original convictions were based on a finding that Croat forces deliberately used illegal artillery attacks on four towns to drive Serb civilians from their homes. But appeals judges overturned that key finding and said that therefore no criminal conspiracy existed.