Two former top Croatian generals were today convicted and sentenced to lengthy jail terms by a United Nations war crimes tribunal over atrocities carried out against ethnic Serb civilians during a military offensive in the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s.
But a third ex-general was acquitted by judges at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) on charges relating to his role in the same offensive, known as Operation Storm, in the Krajina region of Croatia in mid-1995.
Judges serving on the ICTY trial chamber found Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac guilty of various crimes against humanity, including murder, persecutions, deportation and plunder. Both were acquitted of charges of inhumane acts (forcible transfer).
Mr. Gotovina, 55, who commanded the Split military district of the Croatian army from 1992 to 1996, was sentenced to 24 years in prison. Mr. Markac, 55, who served as the Assistant Interior Minister in charge of Special Police matters after 1994, was jailed for 18 years.
Ivan Cermak, 61, who commanded the Knin Garrison from August 1995, was acquitted of all charges, including murder, persecutions, deportation and the wanton destruction of cities, towns or villages.
The judges noted that Operation Storm took place within a wider armed conflict in the former Yugoslavia and followed years of Serb-Croat ethnic tensions in the Krajina region and crimes committed against Croats.
But Judge Alphons Orie, who presided over the trial, said that the case was not about the legality of resorting to and conducting war.
This case was about whether Serb civilians in the Krajina were the targets of crimes and whether the accused should be held criminally liable for these crimes, " he stressed.
The judges found that a high number of crimes " were carried out during Operation Storm, which had the objective of permanently removing ethnic Serbs from the Krajina region by either force or threat of force.
At the end of July 1995 the then Croatian president Franjo Tudman met with high-ranking military officials " including Mr. Gotovina and Mr. Markac " to discuss Operation Storm, which began on 4 August.
Military forces and special police under the control or influence of Mr. Gotovina and Mr. Markac shelled a series of towns and villages, murdered several elderly residents of another village and burned or looted property belonging to ethnic Serb civilians.
The men created a climate of impunity and were aware of the involvement of subordinates in the commission of these crimes, but did nothing to stop them.
The judges found, however, that Mr. Cermak did not have effective control over army units outside of his own subordinates at the Knin garrison, and there was no reliable evidence that those subordinates committed crimes.
The joint trial of the three former generals was one of the ICTY`s longest, beginning in March 2008 and concluding in September last year. The tribunal, which is based in The Hague, has concluded proceedings against 125 people and is still conducting proceedings against 34 others.