THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — A commander hailed by Croats as a hero of the Balkan conflict was convicted of war crimes by a U.N. court Friday and sentenced to 24 years in prison for a campaign of shelling, shootings and expulsions aimed at driving Serbs out of a Croatian border region in 1995.
The conviction of Gen. Ante Gotovina was a blow to the Croatian view of its wartime generals as national heroes who reclaimed Croatian land from a more powerful Serb force.
Thousands of Croatian war veterans watched the verdict live on a large video screen at Zagreb’s main square, and jeered and booed the ruling.
“We have heard the shameful verdicts of the so-called Hague court, but in fact a Serbian court,” Zvonimir Trusic, one of their leaders, told the angry crowd. “We don’t recognize that tribunal.”
“The war is not over, it continues,” he said, as some 5,000 people stood frozen in disbelief, some crying.
Gotovina was convicted of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder, deportation, persecution and inhuman acts, during and immediately after a lightning campaign called Operation Storm that seized back land along Croatia’s eastern border taken over by rebel Serbs early in the Balkan wars. Dozens of Serbs were killed and tens of thousands forced to flee their homes.
Presiding Judge Alphons Orie cited one witness who recalled finding his elderly mother and mentally ill brother shot dead after hearing a Croatian soldier say, “I killed another one.”
The first prosecution witness in the case recalled artillery shells raining down on the city of Knin, hitting apartment blocks and a medical clinic.
“As I ran, shells were falling around me,” the witness said. Her identity was not released by the court.
The offensive is still a source of friction between Balkan neighbors Croatia and Serbia. Zagreb celebrates it with a national holiday, while Belgrade regards it as one of the worst crimes against Serbs committed during the Balkan wars.
In Zagreb, former Foreign Minister Mate Granic, who testified at the trial, criticized the verdicts as “shameful and not based on evidence.” He added that the verdicts attempted to “change history and the historic truth.”
Defense lawyer Greg Kehoe said Gotovina would appeal.
“We all are disappointed,” he said. “We all believed … that we would be taking the general home today.”
The Yugoslav war crimes tribunal judgment said Croatia’s then-president, Franjo Tudjman, led a “joint criminal enterprise” to repopulate the Krajina region with Croats after driving out Serbs. Tudjman died in 1999 while under investigation by the tribunal.
Gotovina’s “orders to unlawfully attack civilians … amounted in and of itself to a significant contribution to the joint criminal enterprise,” Orie said. He said the terror spread by Croat shelling “created an environment in which those present there had no choice but to leave.”
The court also convicted a second general, Mladen Markac, and sentenced him to 18 years, but cleared a third, Ivan Cermak, of all charges and ordered him released.
The judgment was one of the most significant ever handed down by the U.N. court dealing with crimes against Serbs. Belgrade often accuses the tribunal of anti-Serb bias since the vast majority of suspects convicted are Serbs.
Defense lawyers for Gotovina and Markac unsuccessfully argued during the three-year trial that crimes in the Krajina were committed not by Croatian armed forces and special police, but by Croats exacting revenge on Serbs who forced them from their homes years earlier.
Associated Press correspondent Dusan Stojanovic contributed to this report from Croatia.