Verdict due for Croatian ex-general facing 27 years in jail
Former general Ante Gotovina, lauded as an hero in his native Croatia but facing trial for war crimes, faces a possible 27-year jail term Friday when an international court hands down its verdict.
The trial of the 55-year-old former French legionnaire and his co-accused Mladen Markac, 55, and 61-year-old Ivan Cermak, is being keenly followed in Croatia with the ruling due to be broadcast live in central Zagreb.
The three men have been on trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity in The Hague since March 2008. They all deny the charges.
In August last year, prosecutors at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia sought a 27-year jail term for Gotovina accusing him of having sought the "permanent removal of the Serb population from the Krajina region in Croatia" during the war for independence.
A lightning military operation led by Gotovina and dubbed "Operation Storm" led to the recapture of Croatia's Serb-held Krajina region in 1995, crushing one of the last pockets of Serb resistance in an area where their community had roots going back centuries.
With Markac and Cermak, Gotovina is accused of aiding and abetting the murders of Krajina Serb civilians and prisoners of war by "shooting, burning and/or stabbing" them.
The prosecution says 324 Serbs were killed and "close to 90,000 Serbs were forcibly displaced with the clear intention that they never return."
Prosecutors have asked the court for a jail term of 23 years for Markac, a former commander of the special police of Croatia's interior ministry, and 17 years for Cermak, assistant defence minister from 1991 to 1993.
According to prosecutors, the generals formed a joint criminal enterprise with the late Croatian president Franjo Tudjman aimed at driving Croatian Serbs out of their "ancestral homelands" in the eastern Krajina.
Many in Croatia still see Gotovina as a hero who ended the 1991-1995 war in Croatia and his arrest sparked popular protests.
He was finally arrested in a luxury hotel in the Spanish Canary Islands in December 2005, after almost four years on the run.
Croatian Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor echoed popular sentiment before the verdict, saying: ""I'm convinced that in The Hague it will be proved that Croatia led a just and liberating war" and voiced hope for a "just" ruling.
The Roman Catholic church in Croatia has called for fasting and prayers for a fair verdict. And Croatian sports stars, including skier Janica Kostelic and tennis player Goran Ivanisevic, raised some 210,000 euros ($304,137) in 2008, by putting up their personal effects on auction to finance Gotovina's defence.
© 2011 AFP