THE most senior Croatian military officer convicted of war crimes during the Balkan wars of the 1990s was freed on appeal yesterday, in a decision likely to strain already fraught relations between Croatia and Serbia.
General Ante Gotovina was cleared by appeal judges at the UN war crimes tribunal after being convicted of targeting hospitals and other civilian sites during a military operation to retake Croatia’s Krajina region from rebel Serbs.
Gen Gotovina, hailed as a hero at home but reviled in neighbouring Serbia, was freed along with Croatian police commander Mladen Markac.
As he was driven out of the seaside detention centre in The Hague that has been his home since 2005, Gen Gotovina smiled and made the victory sign to photographers. He and Mr Markac were flown home in a Croatian government jet.
Their acquittals were greeted with jubilation in the Croatian capital Zagreb, where they received a red carpet welcome. But Serbia reacted with anger, saying the tribunal had forfeited the right to be considered neutral.
Serbian president Tomislav Nikolic said: “The tribunal has made a political decision and not a legal ruling. Today’s ruling will not contribute to the stabilisation of the situation in the region and will open old wounds.”
The successful appeal marks the biggest reversal for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in its near two decades of hearing cases resulting from the wars that shattered the Yugoslav federation.
Prosecutors had accused Gen Gotovina of illegally targeting civilian institutions in Krajina towns in a deliberate attempt to spread fear to drive Serbs out of the region. But appeal judges said civilian institutions had not been targeted on purpose.
They said in their ruling: “Without a finding that the artillery attacks were unlawful, the trial chamber’s conclusion that a joint criminal enterprise existed cannot be sustained.”
The acquittal will further strain ties between Serbia and Croatia. Relations had improved significantly under pro-Western former Serbian president Boris Tadic, but have soured since the election this year of nationalist Mr Nikolic and Ivica Dacic as his prime minister.
Zagreb-based political analyst Zeljko Trkanjec said: “With this, the tribunal has shown that it has finally decided on who was the aggressor and the fact remains that not a single Croatian general who fought in Croatia has been convicted.”
The decision provides a boost for Croatia before it joins the European Union, vindicating for Croats their 1995 offensive against Serb-held Krajina.
But it could play into the hands of nationalist hardliners in Serbia, who accuse the West of unfairly punishing Serbs for the crimes committed during Yugoslavia’s collapse.
Gen Gotovina’s acquittal is a setback for prosecutors at the tribunal, who have been accused of focussing unduly on Serbian suspects in their investigations.
Since it was set up in 1993, the tribunal has indicted 161 people, of whom 14 have been acquitted.