A UN appeal tribunal's quashing of guilty verdicts against two former Croatian generals has been hailed in Zagreb. But in Belgrade, Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic said the belated acquittals would "open old wounds."
The appeal chamber of The Hague-based International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) on Friday ordered the immediate release of Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac after overturning their jail terms of 24 and 18 years, respectively.
Gotovina was a Croatian army commander. Markac commanded special police forces.
It is the biggest reversal since 1996, when the tribunal began trials against people accused of atrocities during southeastern Europe's breakup in the early 1990s.
In April last year, the ICTY's trial chamber had found Gotovina and Markac guilty of crimes against humanity and war crimes by concluding that they had targeted hospitals and other civilian institutions during Operation Storm of 1995, when Croatia's army retook the Krajina region from ethnic Serbs.
On Friday, however, the appeal chamber's five judges ruled in a 3-2 decision that intent had not been established.
"Without a finding that the artillery attacks were unlawful, the Trial Chamber's conclusion that a joint criminal enterprise existed cannot be sustained," said the appeals court. It also found that the trial chamber had "erred" in concluding that some artillery impact sites amounted to evidence of unlawful attacks.
The majority decision, broadcast live by several Croatian television stations, prompted jubilation among crowds in Zagreb.
Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic said he was sending a jet to bring "the boys back home."
In Belgrade, Serbs reacted with dismay. President Tomislav Nikolic charged that the tribunal had "annulled" its mandate to uphold judicial neutrality.
"Today's ruling will not contribute to the stabilization of the situation in the region and will open old wounds," he said in a written statement.
Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic said the verdicts' overturning gave "credence to those who say that The Hague tribunal is not a court, but has a task to fulfill political orders."
In Brussels, a spokesman for the European Commission said the tribunal was an "independent institution and its work has been to determine individual responsibility for war crimes."
Croatia could become European Union's 28th member in July next year, assuming the move is ratified by all 27 member nations. Croatia joined the western military alliance NATO in 2009.
ipj/mz (Reuters, dpa)