Appeals judges at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) 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 in the Hague on Friday, but their supporters in the court’s packed public gallery cheered and clapped as the judge ordered both men freed immediately.
The appeals court entered a “verdict of acquittal” for Gotovina and Markac, Judge Theodor Meron said at the ICTY.
Considered heroes in Croatia, the two were sentenced in 2011 to 24 and 18 years, respectively, for crimes, including murder and deportation.
Crowds in Zagreb erupted with joy at the acquittals, which were broadcast live by several Croatian TV stations, clapping and cheering. The two generals would appear at a public event in a downtown square after their arrival.
“It’s already full with more than 5,000 people,” said Ivan Corkalo, Al Jazeera’s correspondent in Zagreb. “They’ll be welcomed here in Croatia as heroes.”
Prime minister Zoran Milanovic told a news conference Croatia would send a jet to pick up the pair: “I think it is only fair to get the boys back home.”
But he said Croatia, which joins the European Union next year, would fulfil its obligation to prosecute crimes from the Yugoslav wars, in which at least 100,000 people died.
“There were mistakes in the war, for which Croatia is responsible and for which it will do its debt to justice.”
However, in Belgrade, Serbia’s point man for co-operation with the UN tribunal reacted angrily to the decision.
“There is no logic. Crimes were indisputably committed during Operation Storm, but so far no one has been sentenced for that,” Rasim Ljajictold state-owned Tanjug news agency.
Judges had ruled both men were part of a criminal conspiracy led by former Croat President Franjo Tudjman to expel Serbs. But appeals judges on Friday said no such conspiracy existed.
The 57-year-olds had been convicted last year on nine counts, including murder and inhumane acts committed against Serbs.
A third accused, Ivan Cermak, who was deputy Croatian defence minister at the time, was acquitted.
A former French Foreign Legionnaire, Gotovina was sentenced for war crimes his troops committed during “Operation Storm” he led in August 1995, specifically the shelling of four towns in Croatia’s self-proclaimed Serbian area of Krajina.
The lightning offensive led to the recapture of the Krajina region, crushing one of the last pockets of Serb nationalist resistance in an area where the community had roots going back centuries.
The prosecution said 324 Serb civilians and soldiers were killed and “close to 90,000 Serbs were forcibly displaced with the clear intention that they never return.”
Serb victims’ associations put the numbers at 1,200 civilians killed and 220,000 refugees.