17 Nov 2012

War crimes court acquits Croatian generals

7:06 am on 17 November 2012

A war crimes court in The Hague has overturned the convictions of two Croatian generals charged with atrocities against Serbs in the 1990s.

Appeals judges ordered the immediate release of Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac and they arrived in Zagreb later on Friday to a hero's welcome.

In 2011 they were sentenced to 24 years and 18 years, respectively, over the killing of ethnic Serbs in an offensive to retake Croatia's Krajina region, the BBC reports.

On Friday presiding judge Theodor Meron at the tribunal for the former Yugoslavia said the court had entered "a verdict of acquittal" for General Gotovina and General Markac, both aged 57.

Last year the men were convicted of murder, persecution and plunder. Judges at the time ruled that they were part of a criminal conspiracy led by late Croatian President Franjo Tudjman to "permanently and forcibly remove" the Serb civilian population from Krajina.

But Judge Meron found that had been no such conspiracy.

The appeals judges said the 2011 trial chamber had "erred in finding that artillery attacks" ordered by General Gotovina and General Markac on Krajina towns "were unlawful".

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

Court officials also said prosecutors would not appeal against the ruling, describing it as "the final judgement".

Neither defendant showed emotion in court, but their supporters in the gallery hugged each other and clapped after the verdict.

In Zagreb's main square, thousands of people - who watched the proceedings live on giant TV - burst into applause.

Selective justice, says Serbia

Serbia's deputy prime minister says the United Nations war crimes tribunal has lost all credibility by acquitting the men.

Rasim Ljajic says the move is a testimony to selective justice - which is worse than any injustice.

The appeal hearing marks the biggest reversal by the tribunal during its near two decades of hearing cases involving the bloody break-up of the former Yugoslavia, Reuters reports.