Political decision? Two Croat officers win Hague tribunal appeal

Croatian ex-generals Ante Gotovina (R) and Mladen Markac (L), holding a Croatian flag, stands as they arrive at Zagreb's airport on November 16, 2012 (AFP Photo / Hroje Polan)
Appeal court judges at the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague have overturned the conviction of two Croatian Generals Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac for a campaign in 1995 which killed a number of civilians.

­In 2011, Gotovina and Markac were sentenced by the International Criminal Tribunal to 24 and 18 years respectively, for crimes including murder and forced deportation.

Judges claimed that both men were part of a criminal conspiracy led by former Croatian President Franjo Tudjman to expel Serbs from the Krajina area of Croatia.

Gotavina and Markac had been convicted of perpetrating the expulsion of some 200,000 Serbs from their homes in Croatia in 1995. Some 600 Serbs died in the course of the flight which occurred during a Croatian offensive to take back the Krajina region, an area that had been taken by the Serbs in 1991. 

The appeals panel found that there was no evidence of a conspiracy to ethnically cleanse the region of its Serb population. The appeals judges also said the 2011 trial chamber had "erred in finding that artillery attacks" ordered by Gen Gotovina and Gen Markac on Krajina towns "were unlawful."

“These men have been victims of a gross miscarriage of justice but the Hague tribunal is not putting it that way. It just carries on regardless,” John Laughland, director of studies at the Institute of Democracy and Cooperation, told RT.

The two former generals have always argued that they did not deliberately attack civilians. 

After the announcement the sentence faced criticism. Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic said in a statement that “it is now quite clear the tribunal has made a political decision and not a legal ruling. Today's ruling will not contribute to the stabilization of the situation in the region and will open old wounds." Serbia was always “labeled as a bad guy” in the Western media.

All the Serbs were “regarded as criminals and all the non-Serbs were pretty much innocent,” says political analyst Aleksandar Pavic and adds that “non-Serbian sides of conflict of the 90-s got acquitted to low sentences, when Serbian political figures were always getting 'maximum sentences.'"

It's not only the Serbian president who believes the tribunal made a political decision rather than a legal ruling.

“The most important thing to understand about this acquittal is that it shows the incredibly arbitrary nature of the Hague tribunal’s modus operandi. These men were sentenced to twenty and 18 years in prison and yet the appeal decision has completely overturned their conviction and liberated them immediately,” Laughland said.

The verdict was not welcomed in Serbia while in Croatia tens of thousands of people celebrate the release of the two military officers.

Thousands of supporters on the streets of Zagreb rejoiced the decision of The Hague Appeal tribunal.