The UN Yugoslav war crimes court acquitted Croatian ex-generals Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac of charges, including war crimes during the bloody break-up of Yugoslavia, and ordered them freed.
The appeals court “enters a verdict of acquittal” for Gotovina and Markac, Judge Theodor Meron said on Friday at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague.
The court’s packed public gallery erupted in cheers and clapping as the acquittal was read, with many people bursting out in tears and hugging Markac’s wife, Mirjana, who was at the hearing, as supporters outside uncorked champagne bottles.
Gotovina and Markac, considered heroes in Croatia, were last year jailed for 24 and 18 years respectively for the murder of Croatian Serbs during their country’s struggle for independence and the bloody and ethnically driven break-up of Yugoslavia.
But the court found that the initial convictions were based on the false premise that any artillery that landed on Serb-inhabited towns and was more than 200 metres from a military target was an attack on civilians.
Judges also overturned the finding of “a joint criminal enterprise whose purpose was the permanent and forcible removal of Serb civilians from the Krajina region”.
Gotovina, listened intently as the judge read the verdict, sometimes tapping his fingers on the table. As it became obvious he would be freed, he smiled and shook Markac’s hand.
Outside the courthouse supporters uncorked champagne while singing Croatian nationalist songs.
“It’s a great day for us,” said Zvonko Komsic, 53, as he hugged Markac’s wife while taking a swig of champagne.
Candlelight vigils were held the night before the ruling around Croatia, which will in July join the European Union, having fulfilled the condition of handing over war crimes suspects to the court based in The Hague.
People cheered and broke down in tears in Zagreb’s central square, where thousands watched the generals acquitted in a live broadcast.
Hopes had been high that the generals would be freed, with Gotovina supporter Edi Zelic saying he had champagne on ice in anticipation as he awaited the verdict outside the Hague courtroom.
Croatian Catholic Bishop Vlado Kosic had urged the faithful to “raise their voice against injustice regarding the generals and Croatia” and to pray “for a fair verdict”.
Gotovina, and Markac, both 57, were 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 1995, specifically the shelling of four towns in Croatia’s self-proclaimed Serb area of Krajina in August of that year.
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.
Gotovina, the highest-ranking Croatian army officer tried by the court, and Markac – jailed for 18 years – appealed against their sentences in May, with their lawyer disputing that Croatian artillery ever targeted civilians, something appeals judges agreed with.
Prosecutors had argued that Operation Storm was a “joint criminal enterprise”, devised by late Croatian president Franjo Tudjman and senior Croat military commanders to drive Serbs from the country.
Gotovina, seen by his supporters as the man who helped liberate Croatia in the chaotic aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, was arrested in a luxury hotel in the Spanish Canary Islands in December 2005 after almost four years on the run.