Croatian generals await war crimes verdict

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Judges were to hand down verdicts Friday in the trial of three ex-Croatian generals accused of overseeing the killing of more than 300 Serbs in one of the bloodiest episodes of the 1991-95 conflict.

The judgement by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, based in The Hague, was to be shown live in central Zagreb with supporters vowing to take to the streets if the trio are found guilty.

The main defendant, Ante Gotovina, is regarded as a national hero back home but he faces a possible 27 years behind bars if found guilty.

The 55-year-old former French legionnaire and his co-accused Mladen Markac, 55, and Ivan Cermak, 61, 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 sought a 27-year jail term for Gotovina, accusing him of having sought the "permanent removal of the ethnic 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.

Along 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 one of bloodiest episodes of the 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, voicing hope for a "just" ruling, adding: "I'm convinced that in The Hague it will be proved that Croatia led a just and liberating war."

Around 1,000 Croatian war veterans marched in Zagreb on the eve of the verdict in a show of support for the three men.

And the front page on Friday of the influential Vecernji List daily carried a photo of Gotovina with a single-word headline, "Hero".

The Roman Catholic Church in Croatia has called for fasting and prayers for a fair verdict while sports stars including tennis legend Goran Ivanisevic have auctioned some of their personal effects to finance Gotovina's defence.

© 2011 AFP

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