Two Croatian military leaders have been convicted at The Hague of atrocities against Serbs during a 1995 campaign of ethnic cleansing. Many Croats denounced the verdict.
Judges at the International War Crimes Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia sentenced Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac who were found guilty of crimes including murder, persecution and plunder.
Presiding Judge Alphons Orie read out Gotovina’s sentence.
"For having committed these crimes, the chamber sentences you, Mr. Gotovina, to a single sentence of 24 years of imprisonment," said Judge Orie.
Markac was given 18 years and a third defendant, Ivan Cermak, was found not guilty.
The rulings came after a three year trial investigating Operation Storm, a Croatian offensive carried out in 1995 to reclaim the republic of Krajina from Serb control.
The defendants were accused of having failed to prevent their forces from killing hundreds of people and forcing thousands from their home. All three men said they were innocent.
Greg Kehoe, defense lawyer for Gotovina, said the story isn’t over.
"The Gotovina defense put forth a very strong defense that general Gotovina acted in accordance with military law and military tactics and we will take that and we will examine this judgment and we will appeal, we will be successful," said Kehoe. "This decision runs directly counter to the facts presented in the courtroom and the law of this court."
Cries of anger were reportedly heard from the public gallery when the sentence was announced.
Many Croats consider Gotovina and Markac national heroes. Vesna Bojicic-Dzelilovic is a Croatia-expert at the London School of Economics. She explains how many in Croatia view the war.
"For local public it was a just war, it was a homeland war, it was a defense war and Gotovina is perceived as a local hero," said Bojicic-Dzelilovic.
Croatia agreed to cooperate with the UN trial in order to move forward with plans to join the European Union.
But Bojicic-Dzelilovic says Croatian officials thought there was not sufficient evidence to convict the defendants. The heavy sentences, she says, puts Croatian politicians in a tough position.
What’s more, the judges ruled that Croatia’s political leadership, including the late president, were also guilty by association.
Bojicic-Dzelilovic says that judgment is critical.
"What is the most sensitive aspect of the verdict is this joint criminal enterprise point, implying that it was not just Gotovina himself, but what happened during the Operation Storm happened in collusion and in a way in collaboration with the highest ranks of Croatia's political and military leadership," she said.
Croatia’s prime minister said Friday the government would take all possible legal steps to annul those findings on appeal.