War

UN judgments due in Croatian war crimes case

AP News
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Posted: Apr 14, 2011 1:22 PM
UN judgments due in Croatian war crimes case

A U.N. war crimes court is delivering its verdicts Friday in the case of three Croat generals accused of atrocities against Serbs in a 1995 military campaign.

The ruling in the cases of Ante Gotovina, Ivan Cermak and Mladen Markac will help define whether the world judges Croatia's Operation Storm as a well-planned military operation to recover land occupied by rebel Serbs or a textbook case of ethnic cleansing.

Prosecutors accuse the generals of murder, deportation and persecution, but Croatia considers them heroes and commemorates the end of the military campaign with a national holiday called Victory Day.

Large screens were being erected Thursday across Croatia to broadcast Friday's verdicts live, and an evening mass was planned in Zagreb to pray for the generals. In Gotovina's hometown, the small coastal town of Pakostane, retired soldiers sang "Ante, Ante, we are there for you!" but acknowledged he could be harshly penalized.

"He is guilty of nothing. He is just being used by politicians. He was never a politician himself. He was just a soldier," ex-soldier Bert Sarina said.

Defense lawyers say Gotovina, the most senior of the generals, did all he could to prevent his troops from committing crimes as they retook control of towns and villages across Croatia's Serb-dominated Krajina region. Prosecutors allege he never had any intention for his orders not to commit crimes to be followed.

Gotovina lawyer Luka Misetic said in his closing statement that prosecutors believe that "every good thing he did to prevent and punish crimes was fraudulent."

Prosecutors, he added, have ruled out "the possibility that even one person in the entire state of Croatia did a good thing or that he did it for the right reasons."

Another of Gotovina's lawyers, Greg Kehoe, said Thursday that a key tenet of the prosecution case _ that Operation Storm opened with indiscriminate shelling of the city of Knin _ was disproved at the trial.

"We demonstrated from A-to-Z that the artillery was a proportional attack carried out within strict military guidelines," he said. "I am confident (Gotovina) is going home at the end of tomorrow."

Tensions were rising in Croatia ahead of the verdicts, but Croatian media quoted the three generals from their prison cells urging Croats to accept the verdicts and refrain from protests.

Croatian officials also have urged calm.

The verdicts come after a three-year trial in which all the generals have pleaded not guilty to all charges. Prosecutors want judges to sentence Gotovina to 27 years, Markac to 23 years and Cermak to 17 years.

Gotovina, a charismatic 55-year-old former French Legionnaire, was once one of the tribunal's most-wanted fugitives. He went on the run after being indicted in 2001 and was finally arrested in a restaurant on a Spanish island in December 2005. Cermak and Markac both surrendered voluntarily in 2004.

During Operation Storm, Gotovina commanded troops in the southern part of the Krajina region that was recaptured by Croats from Serb nationalists. Cermak commanded the garrison in Knin and Mladac led the Interior Ministry's special police.

They all are accused of being part of a criminal plan, together with former Croatian President Franjo Tudjman and others, to drive ethnic Serbs out of the Krajina with a campaign of persecution.

Croatian forces allegedly murdered Serbs, torched their homes and looted their belongings as they fled the region.

Kehoe said defense attorneys did not dispute that crimes were committed, but blamed them on vengeful Croats returning to their homes and said Gotovina had no responsibility over them.

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Associated Press Writer Jovana Gec in Belgrade contributed to this report.