UN court to rule on fate of Croatia's 'war hero'
The UN Yugoslav war crimes court rules Friday on the appeal of Croatian ex-general Ante Gotovina, who was convicted of war crimes for his part in the 1990s Balkans wars but who remains a hero in his home country.
Gotovina is appealing the 24-year sentence handed down in 2011 for the murder of Croatian Serbs during his country's struggle for independence during the bloody and ethnically driven break-up of Yugoslavia.
Candle-lit vigils were held the night before the ruling around Croatia, which will in July join the European Union having fulfilled the condition of handing over war crimes suspects to the court based in The Hague.
Thousands were expected to watch the 9:00 am (0800 GMT) ruling from the the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) live on giant screens on capital Zagreb's main square.
"We want to show our support for our generals and we are waiting with them for the verdict," veteran association leader Josip Klemm told AFP in Zagreb.
Croatian Roman Catholic 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".
Gotovina, 57, and his co-accused Mladen Markac, also 57, were convicted last year on nine counts including murder and inhumane acts committed against Serbs.
A third accused, Ivan Cermak, who was deputy Croatian defence minister at the time, was acquitted.
A former French Foreign Legionnaire, Gotovina was sentenced for war crimes his troops committed during "Operation Storm" he led in 1995, specifically the shelling of four towns in Croatia's self-proclaimed Serb area of Krajina in August of that year.
The lightning offensive led to the recapture of the Krajina region, crushing one of the last pockets of Serb nationalist resistance in an area where the community had roots going back centuries.
The prosecution said 324 Serb civilians and soldiers were killed and "close to 90,000 Serbs were forcibly displaced with the clear intention that they never return."
Serb victims' associations put the numbers at 1,200 civilians killed and 220,000 refugees.
Gotovina, the highest-ranking Croatian army officer tried by the court, and Markac -- jailed for 18 years -- appealed their sentences in May, with their lawyer disputing that Croatian artillery ever targeted civilians.
But prosecutors argued that Operation Storm was a "criminal enterprise" devised by the late Croatian president Franjo Tudjman and senior Croat military commanders to drive Serbs from the country.
Gotovina, seen by his supporters as the man who helped liberate Croatia in the chaotic aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, was arrested in a luxury hotel in the Spanish Canary Islands in December 2005 after almost four years on the run.
© 2012 AFP