The acquittal of Croatian general Ante Gotovina by the appeals chamber of the ICTY concludes one of the most followed, controversial and unpredictable trials of a military commander in recent times.
In April 2011, the International Crime Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia convicted Croatian General Ante Gotovina of ‘five counts of crimes against humanity’ and ‘four counts of violations of laws or customs of war’ and sentenced him to 24 years. General Gotovina, who was the overall operational commander of a military operation codenamed ‘Operation Storm’ or ‘Oluja’, was indicted for crimes that had been committed by his soldiers during the offensive.
A year later, the conviction has been overturned and Gotovina arrived in Zagreb with tens of thousands of Croats, young and old, lining the streets and gathering in the squares to welcome him. For the young western Balkan nation, November 16, 2012 will go down in history.
Storm was an offensive conducted by the Croatian army to reclaim parts of the country under Serb control, particularly the ‘Krajina’ region. Praised for its swiftness and efficiency in attaining its objectives, Storm however caught international attention due to the mass exodus of ethnic Serbs from the region. 300-600 Serb civilians lost their lives. The legitimacy and legality of the Operation was soon questioned by the International Crime Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and General Gotovina, the man largely responsible for conducting it was indicted for war crimes in 2001. He went into hiding and was captured in Spain in 2005. What followed was one of the most important, complex and controversial trials in the history of the tribunal and the first instance verdict declaring him guilty, was delivered in 2011.
Ante Gotovina holds an unparalleled stature in modern Croatia. With the death of other leading figures such as President Franjo Tudjman and Defence Minister Gojko Susak, he became a symbol of the ‘homeland war’, of liberation and sovereignty. His conviction was seen as a conviction of the nation, a condemnation of its policies and actions during the war and as a distortion of history. The acquittal is seen as a vindication.
From the very beginning, the conviction and specifically the criteria used for conviction had failed to satisfy many international observers. The ruling by the tribunal that any Croatian artillery that landed 200 meters from a military target was ‘indiscriminate’ and therefore illegal came in for scathing criticism from many prominent military commanders. Such a criterion, the appeals chamber ruled, was ‘devoid of any reasoning’.
Soon after his conviction 12 prominent western military figures submitted a brief to the chamber, claiming that the standards by which Gotovina was convicted were unfair , claiming that such a ‘precedent’ would be dangerous for future military operations. This was not admitted as evidence by the appeals chamber, but the case’s potential to create a precedent and regulation for the expected and acceptable actions of a military commander during an offensive were by no means underestimated.
The most controversial element of the initial Gotovina judgment was the assertion that Gen. Gotovina and the Croatian leadership, led by Tudjman was part of a ‘joint criminal enterprise’ that sought to expel all ethnic Serbs from the Krajina during Storm. The basis for such a theory was a meeting Tudjman held with his top military officials in July, 1995 in the island of Brijuni. This was further complicated by the fact that Storm was not an independent Croatian Operation, but had Bosnian, US and NATO support. The majority verdict dismissed such a conspiracy.
More than a decade after his death, Franjo Tudjman continues to enjoy huge popularity among the Croatian public and this verdict has brought in a little more clarity to his often controversial and mixed legacy.
The acquittal has predictably sparked mixed reactions in the region. Croatian Prime Minister, Zoran Milanovic thanked Gotovina and Mladen Markac, the other General indicted along with him for ‘enduring so much for Croatia’. Bosnian President Zivko Budimir congratulated them on ‘another victory’ while calling them ‘respected comrades, dear friends and our heroes’, while Tomislav Nikolic, the President of Serbia, termed the verdict ‘scandalous’, with various sections of the Serbian media claiming that it would reopen old wounds. Serb nationalists burned a Croatian flag while protesting the verdict the next day.
With Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic among those still on trial, some of its most crucial judgments are still to be rendered by the ICTY as it nears its closure and replacement by the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals. Nearly two decades after the end of the conflict, much of the world still struggles to understand the Yugoslav conflict and the tribunals findings will be looked to as the basis for forming any longer term historical narrative.
On his arrival in Croatia, Gotovina asked his countrymen to make Storm and the war a thing of the past and to work together for a better future. For many Croatians, that future had become a little brighter and the past a lot clearer.