Library of Congress

Law Library of Congress

The Library of Congress > Law Library > News & Events > Global Legal Monitor

Croatia: Convictions in War Crimes Trials

(Apr. 26, 2011) On April 15, 2011, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), a United Nations-sponsored war crimes tribunal based in The Hague, convicted two former high-level Croatian generals for crimes against humanity actions perpetrated during the conflict in the Balkans in the 1990s. Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac were given long prison terms for atrocities committed against Serbian civilians in 1995. A third former general, Ivan Cermak, was acquitted of crimes in the same military operation, in Croatia's Krajina region. (UN War Crimes Tribunal Convicts Two Former Croatian Generals over Atrocities, UN NEWS CENTRE (Apr. 15, 2011).)

Gotovina was given a 24-year sentence, and Markac received an 18-year term; while the two men were convicted of murder, persecution, deportation, and plunder, they were found innocent of the charge of forcible transfer of individuals. Gotovina had been the commander of the Croatian army in the Split district from 1992 to 1996; Markac was the Assistant Interior Minister in charge of the Special Police from 1994. Cermak, who had led the Knin Garrison from August 1995, was acquitted of charges of murder, persecution, deportation, and wanton destruction of cities, towns, and villages. (Id.)

The week after the decision was announced, angry Croatians participated in street demonstrations in Zagreb against the convictions. Although most acknowledge crimes were committed during the war, they object to the ICTY's characterization of the generals' actions as part of a criminal enterprise, led by the then President of Croatia, Franjo Tudjman, and others. The current Croatian government has said it will work on an appeal of the judgments. (Protest Days: Angry Demonstrations Reflect Some Deep-Seated Grievances, THE ECONOMIST (Apr. 20, 2011).)

The ICTY noted that the atrocities took place in the context of wider, ethnic conflict, but took care to distinguish this case from any consideration of the legality of resorting to armed conflict. According to the presiding judge, Alphons Orie, “[t]his case was about whether Serb civilians in the Krajina were the targets of crimes and whether the accused should be held criminally liable for these crimes.” (UN NEWS CENTRE, supra.)

The judges noted that many crimes were committed during Croatia's “Operation Storm,” with the goal of forcibly removing all ethnic Serbs from the Krajina region. The decision referred to the meeting of Trudjman with Gotovina, Markac, and other leaders, in July 1995; Operation Storm was launched on August 4 of that year and included the murder of elderly residents of one village, the shelling of a number of towns, and the destruction or looting of property of Serbian civilians. (Id.)

In acquitting Cermak, the judges stated that he had not had effective control of military forces other than his direct subordinates in Knin, for whom there was no firm evidence of criminal actions. The trial of the three generals, which ran from March 2008 until September 2010, was one of the longest in the history of the ICTY. Proceedings are still underway in 34 cases; to date the ICTY has prosecuted 125 people. (Id.)