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By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
ZAGREB/BUDAPEST (BosNewsLife)-- The United Nation Yugoslav war crimes court in the Dutch city of The Hague has acquitted on appeal two Croatian generals who were earlier sentenced last year to long prison sentences for war crimes.
The acquittal of Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac came after overnight prayer vigils and demonstrations in Croatia, which is mainly Catholic.
An appeals court of the UN tribunal said Friday, November 16, there was not enough evidence to convict Gotovina, the most senior Croatian military officer charged with war crimes during the Balkan conflict of the 1990s.
Gotovina, who was commander in the Split district of the Croatian army, had been jailed for 24 years.
Markac, a Croatian police commander who was serving an 18-year sentence, also saw his sentenced overturned.
The court ordered, "the immediate release of Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac and directs the registrar to make the necessary arrangements," said Theodor Meron, the president of the five-judge panel which ruled 3-2 to acquit the two men.
The release of Gotovina and Markac, both 57, came as a major setback for prosecutors.
They maintained that the leaders oversaw an operation in which 324 Serb civilians and soldiers were killed and "close to 90,000 Serbs forcibly displaced with the clear intention that they never return" to the Krajina region.
Serb victims' associations claimed 1,200 civilians were killed and 220,000 fled Krajina 1995 when Croatian forces crushed Serb nationalist resistance in an area where the community had roots going back centuries.
Prosecutors also claimed the shelling of the town of Knin and three other towns was part of a plan designed to drive out ethnic Serbs in what became known as Operation Storm.
But there were celebrations in Croatia Friday, November 16, where both men are seen as heroes and thousands watched the final verdict on huge television screens.
Croats even held overnight prayer vigils and special Masses in Catholic churches across the nation with people praying for the generals' freedom.
Croatian 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."
The government was pleased too. "A huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders," Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic told reporters in the capital Zagreb after the verdict.
"This has gone on for 17 years, and two innocent people can go home," he said. "But that doesn’t mean the war wasn’t bloody and Croatia will do its part to achieve justice," the government leader added.
The case closed as the former Yugoslav republic plans to join the European Union in July, despite still struggling to recover after three years of recession and economic decline.
Amid EU pressure, Croatia cooperated with the extradition of the generals to The Hague and supported their defense teams in claiming the generals couldn’t prevent individual soldiers from committing crimes.
Serbia has condemned the release of the generals. "The UN war crimes court has lost "all credibility" after it acquitted them, said Serbian minister Rasim Ljajic, responsible for the country's cooperation with the tribunal.
"The UN war crimes court has lost all credibility", Ljajic told Beta news agency, adding that "today's decision is proof of selective justice which is worse than any injustice".
Serbia's war crimes prosecutor also dismissed the "scandalous decision" of the court.
Ironically the leader of Serbs of the self declared republic in Krajina, Milan Martic, was sentenced 35 years imprisonment by the UN tribunal in 2007.
Martic was found guilty of war crimes such as murder, persecution, forced displacement and destruction of life and property, during his leadership from 1991 to 1995.