THE HAGUE, Apr 15 – Judges on Friday jailed ex-Croatian general Ante Gotovina for 24 years and co-accused Mladen Markac for 18 years for war crimes and crimes against humanity but acquitted third defendant Ivan Cermak.
All three former Croatian generals had been on trial by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, accused of overseeing the killing of more than 300 Serbs in one of the bloodiest episodes of the 1991-95 Balkans conflict.
The judgement was shown live in central Zagreb, where hundreds gathered to watch it on a public screen and supporters vowed to take to the streets if the trio were found guilty. All had denied the charges.
Former French legionnaire Gotovina, 55, is regarded as a national hero back home for his role during the war sparked by the break-up of the former Yugoslavia.
Prosecutors at the trial which opened in March 2008 had sought a 27-year jail term for Gotovina, accusing him of having sought the "permanent removal of the ethnic Serb population from the Krajina region in Croatia" during the war for independence.
A lightning offensive led by Gotovina and dubbed Operation Storm led to the recapture of Croatia\’s Serb-held Krajina region in 1995, crushing one of the last pockets of Serb resistance in an area where the community had roots going back centuries.
All three ex-generals were accused of aiding and abetting the murders of Krajina Serb civilians and prisoners of war by "shooting, burning and/or stabbing" them.
The prosecution said 324 Serbs were killed and "close to 90,000 Serbs were forcibly displaced with the clear intention that they never return."
Prosecutors had asked the court for a jail term of 23 years for Markac, a former commander of the special police of Croatia\’s interior ministry, and 17 years for Cermak, assistant defence minister from 1991 to 1993.
Cermak commanded troops based in Krajina capital of Knin who were alleged to have carried out "ethnic cleansing" operations against Serbs.
The prosecution said all three formed a joint criminal enterprise with the late Croatian president Franjo Tudjman aimed at driving Croatian Serbs out of their "ancestral homelands" in the eastern Krajina.
In Friday\’s verdict judge Alphonse Orie ruled that "the conduct of Gotovina amounted to a significant contribution to the joint criminal entreprise."
Gotovina, seen by his supporters as as a hero who ended the war in Croatia, was finally arrested in a luxury hotel in the Spanish Canary Islands in December 2005 after almost four years on the run.
The trial was the first and only before the ICTY of Croats charged with war crimes committed against Serbs during the war in Croatia.
Croatian Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor echoed popular sentiment before the verdict, voicing hope for a "just" ruling and adding: "I\’m convinced that in The Hague it will be proved that Croatia led a just and liberating war."
But the premier also called for calm in Zagreb, saying that "protests … cannot change anything."
Around 1,000 Croatian war veterans marched in Zagreb on the eve of the verdict in a show of support for the three men and their association warned of a mass demonstration on Friday.
The front page of Friday\’s influential Vecernji List daily carried a photo of Gotovina with a single-word headline, "Hero".
The Roman Catholic Church in Croatia called for fasting and prayers for a fair verdict while sports stars including tennis legend Goran Ivanisevic auctioned some of their personal effects to finance Gotovina\’s defence.
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