The two generals were convicted of war crimes in 2011, but the verdict was overturned a year later.
Exactly five years have passed since Croatian generals Mladen Markač and Ante Gotovina were released by the Appeals Chamber of the International War Crimes Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) at The Hague. That same afternoon, they returned in a government-owned plane and landed at the Pleso Airport in Zagreb, reports tportal.hr on November 17, 2017.
The indictment against them was filed in 2001 by then chief prosecutor Carla del Ponte. Gotovina decided to flee and was arrested only four years later. During this period, the issue of his whereabouts and possible arrest were the central question in Croatian politics, with Croatia being accused by the international community of not doing enough to try to locate him. This issue also delayed the start of Croatia’s accession negotiations with the European Union. Gotovina was eventually arrested in Spain.
He was later joined in the Hague by generals Ivan Čermak and Mladen Markač. The lengthy trial finally started in 2008. While Čermak was found not guilty, Markač and Gotovina were convicted in April 2011 and sentenced to long-term prison sentences. At the time, the news was greeted with horror and disbelief in Croatia. However, after an appeal a year later, Judge Theodor Merron dismissed all charges and ordered their immediate release from prison.
The news was the main topic of conversion in Croatia for days and was also covered by the international media, describing it as one of the greatest reversals of the Hague Tribunal. Former Hague prosecutor Del Ponte was shocked. “’I am very, very surprised! Gotovina should have been convicted,” she reacted. Gotovina’s release from prison also surprised Serbian authorities which still consider him to be a war criminal for alleged crimes during the Homeland War in the 1990s.
The two Croatian generals were welcomed in Zagreb by then Prime Minister Zoran Milanović, Speaker of Parliament Josip Leko and many other officials and members of the veterans associations, as well as by about 100,000 citizens who gathered at the main Zagreb square. Many other similar celebratory events were organised all around Croatia.
Although during his flight and trial Gotovina became a kind of folk hero for the rightwing circles, with most expecting he would enter politics and lead an opposition against the then SDP-led government, Gotovina surprised many by sending conciliatory messages and saying that he would not get involved with politics.
“We are happy to have you all together with us here. This is our common victory. We have achieved a victory during the Operation Storm in war, and this was another Storm in a legal sense. We have ended the Homeland War. The war belongs to history, we should turn towards the future all together. This is our victory,” Gotovina told the crowd gathered at Ban Jelačić Square in Zagreb.