THE HAGUE, Netherlands The Yugoslav war-crimes tribunal overturned the convictions of two Croat generals Friday for murdering and illegally expelling Serb civilians in a 1995 military blitz, and ordered both men to be freed immediately.
The decision, by a 3-2 majority in the U.N. court’s five-judge appeals chamber, is one of the most significant reversals in the court’s 18-year history and overturns a verdict that dealt a blow to Croatia’s self-image as a victim of atrocities, rather than a perpetrator, during the Balkan wars in the 1990s.
The ruling triggered scenes of rapture in court and among Croat war veterans watching the ruling on big screens in the capital, Zagreb, but also triggered fury in Serbia, where it was seen as further evidence of anti-Serb bias at the tribunal. Even liberal Serbs warned it created a sense of injustice and could stir nationalist sentiments.
Neither Ante Gotovina nor Mladen Markac showed any emotion as Presiding Judge Theodor Meron told them they were free men, but their supporters in the court’s packed public gallery cheered and clapped.
Gotovina and Markac were sentenced to 24 and 18 years, respectively, in 2011 for crimes, including murder and deportation. Judges ruled both men were part of a criminal conspiracy led by former Croat President Franjo Tudjman to expel Serbs.
Serbia claims that some 600 Serbs were killed and more than 200,000 driven from their homes during the operation.