Hero or villain? UN war crimes trial will decide legacy of Croatian Gen. Gotovina

By Mike Corder, AP
Friday, August 27, 2010

Trial wrapping up for Croat generals

THE HAGUE, Netherlands — To fellow Croatians he’s a war hero. For Serbs he’s a criminal who lent tacit support to ethnic cleansing. Of one thing there’s little doubt: Gen. Ante Gotovina has led a life on the edge.

He was a fighter in the French Foreign Legion and served on a French president’s security detail. When he was indicted for war crimes, he led police on a worldwide four-year chase until his arrest in a Spanish resort — as he sipped a glass of fine wine.

Four days in 1995 define his life — a key battle of the Balkan wars that is the focus of a trial that wraps up next week and will determine whether he returns home to a hero’s welcome or spends decades in prison.

Gotovina, 54, commanded troops in the lightning offensive to seize back the Croatia’s Krajina region annexed by rebel Serbs, which Croats celebrate as Operation Storm.

For the last 2 1/2 years, Gotovina’s once globe-trotting life has been reduced to nearly daily trips from a jail cell to a courtroom at the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal: He and two other Croat generals stand accused of unleashing a wave of murder and persecution of Serbs and the widespread looting and torching of their villages.

Prosecutors argue the four-day blitz was a textbook example of ethnic cleansing, while lawyers for the generals insist it was a legitimate military campaign that adhered to the laws of war.

The verdict, expected late this year, will be a milestone event in the Balkans.

For Croatians, acquittal would lend legal legitimacy to a campaign they already commemorate with a national holiday. For Serbs, conviction would be rare victory at a court many see as inherently biased against them.

The trial that started in March, 2008, wraps up next week with closing arguments. Prosecutors have demanded a 27-year sentence for Gotovina and prison terms of 23 years and 17 years respectively for his co-accused, Mladen Markac and Ivan Cermak.

The court heard several accounts of civilian slayings and abuse, including that of an elderly Serb woman forced to strip to her underwear and play basketball.

One witness described fleeing a building in the provincial capital, Knin, as shells fell around her and seeing dozens of new graves in a cemetery days later. Others told judges of the murder and mistreatment of Serb civilians by Croat forces. As Croat troops moved into the region after the shelling a wave of looting and abuse was unleashed that left dozens of Serbs dead and caused tens of thousands more to flee their homes.

Defense lawyers do not dispute that crimes were committed but say the generals were not responsible, instead blaming revenge attacks by Croats who themselves had been ethnically cleansed by Serbs.

In a written summary of their case, prosecutors acknowledged that Gotovina repeatedly issued orders for troops not to commit crimes and for perpetrators to be punished, but said he knew they would not be followed and did little to enforce them.

“His orders were aimed at pretending to address this crime wave, while allowing it to continue,” they wrote.

Misetic said Gotovina’s orders were genuine.

“The prosecution now essentially says that … it was all fake or, I guess, for consumption by the international community,” Misetic said. “This is basically where the trial chamber will have to make a decision — when he’s issuing these internal orders to his troops are they intended to be followed or not intended to be followed?”

Gotovina left Croatia as a teenager and went to sea in the merchant marines before becoming a French legionnaire as a paratrooper in Africa. He wound up in France, working in the security detail of President Valery Giscard d’Estaing around the time he left office in 1981.

His lawyer, Luka Misetic, said his links to France’s Gaullist movement likely led to him being framed by supporters of President Francois Mitterrand for an armed robbery and serving time in a French prison in the mid-1980s.

News reports say he trained paramilitaries in several Latin American countries, although Misetic denies it. Gotovina also spent much of his time in luxury resorts in the Spanish islands.

With his country on the brink of war, he went home in 1990, rising swiftly through the ranks and commanding its most sensitive districts.

On learning of his U.N. indictment, Gotovina traveled the world for more than four years to avoid arrest. When he was finally arrested in a restaurant in 2005 on the Spanish island of Tenerife he had two false passports with stamps from countries across South America and Asia.

“It is straight out of some French spy novel, it’s full of intrigue,” Misetic said.

Operation Storm still stirs deep emotions. Earlier this month Croats celebrated the 15th anniversary of the liberation of the Krajina while Serbs in Belgrade and Bosnia mourned victims.

Serbian President Boris Tadic called the military counterpunch a “crime which shouldn’t be forgotten.” His Croatian counterpart Ivo Josipovic responded that it was “above all, the crown of the justified liberation war.”

If Gotovina is acquitted, “there will be a huge euphoria here and everybody will forget the facts from his indictment,” said Croatian political analyst Zarko Puhovski. Conviction “will be seen here as a politically motivated verdict — one meant to equalize guilt.”

Despite Gotovina’s colorful past, he now dedicates his time in jail to a more peaceful pursuit — painting portraits.

“As surprising as this may seem, he’s an artist,” said Misetic.


Associated Press Writer Snjezana Vukic in Zagreb contributed to this report.

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