The acquittal was greeted with jubilations in Croatia - and bitter outrage in Serbia. Croatians poured onto the streets to celebrate the release of the two former generals Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac announced on Friday (16.11.2012)
Many Croatians hail Ante Gotovina, the most senior Croatian military officer convicted of war crimes, as the hero of their struggle for independence during the violent breakup of the Yugoslav federation in the 1990s.
In April 2011, when Gotovina was found guilty of war crimes and sentenced to 24 years in prison by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) based in The Hague, many Croatians viewed the sentence as an affront to what they view as a legitimate battle of self-defense.
"Gotovina is our hero, not a criminal!" posters read all over the country.
Tribunal reversed earlier judgment
Appeal judges revoked the 2011 judgment, which had found the generals guilty of targeting civilian sites during a military operation to retake Croatia's Krajina region from rebel Serbs. The Tribunal rejected the premise on which the original convictions was based, namely that all missiles that had targeted residential areas more than 200 meters from military sites should be viewed as deliberate attacks on civilians.
The appeals judges held that the lower court had "erred" in this assessment. Nor could they gather enough evidence to hold them responsible of "forcibly diplac[ing] civilians."
During the initial phase of the war in Croatia (1991-1995) the Serbian minority, about 12 percent of the population, controlled roughly a third of the country. In August 1995, Croatian soldiers retook the region in a military operation known as "Oluja" (storm).
Deliberate ethnic cleansing?
In the course of only a couple of days more than 200,000 Serbs were expelled from Croatia, some 600 were killed, even after the end of the military operation. The troops in the Southern Sector were under the command of General Ante Gotovina.
After more than four years of court hearings, the UN Tribunal found Gotovina guilty of the murder of at least 37 people, the burning and destruction of villages and towns and the expulsion of tens of thousands of Serbs.
The Court also held that Gotovina and the president at the time, Franjo Tudjman, had been part of a "criminal organization," which had planned and executed the expulsion of Serbs from Croatia.
"Act of self-defense"
The appeals judges have now overturned these judgments. They described the military operation "storm" as a legitimate act of self-defense. They were also unable to prove the earlier claims of "criminal intent" to expulse Serbs from Croatia.
This assessment confirms what many in Croatia have long held to be true. Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic called the acquittal an "important moment for Croatia" and went on to thank the two generals "who have suffered so much for Croatia."
According to Croatian President Ivo Josipovic the ruling was evidence that the "Croatian army wasn't involved in any criminal activities." Leading politicians joined the euphoria, eulogizing the army and "this historical day."
Sentence prevents people coming to terms with the war
Zarko Puhovski, a Croatian political scientist and commentator, was worried by these reactions.
"In Croatia people are saying: Enough is enough, we need to stop talking about the war, we just want to move on," Puhovski said. "But that means that those people who were responsible for war crimes will probably never be taken to court."
Under these circumstances, people will never come to terms with the past, Puhovski added.
Solveig Richter from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs said she believes the judgment will burden the process of reconciliation between Croatia and Serbia. It may strengthen more extremist groups within the two countries, who "nourish the historical animosities between the two."
Outrage and protests in Serbia
In Serbia the Tribunal's decision was greeted with incomprehension and outrage. President Tomislav Nikolic called the ruling "scandalous" and the Serbian minister in charge of cooperating with the Tribunal, Rasim Ljajic, said the Tribunal had "lost all credibility."
This view is shared by many, according to Dragan Popovic, director of the Belgrade Policy Center. Many in Serbia question whether the Tribunal in The Hague can still be seen as an independent institution.
"This decision strengthens nationalists," Popovic said. "We will, once again, have to explain that this is not an international conspiracy."
On Saturday, several hundred supporters of the extremist Serbian Radical Party gathered in Belgrade, carrying banners reading "Stop The Hague." They chanted nationalist slogans and burnt a Croatian flag to protest the Tribunal's decision.
The democratic forces in Serbia, Popovic said, may be loosing the fight.