THE HAGUE, Netherlands – The Yugoslav war crimes tribunal convicted a wartime leader of Croatia's rebel Serbs of murder, torture and persecution Tuesday and sentenced him to 35 years in prison for a brutal ethnic cleansing campaign of non-Serbs in Croatia.
Judges said Milan Martic, 52, was responsible for hundreds of murders from 1991, when Serbs in the Krajina region of southern Croatia rebelled and set up a breakaway ministate until 1995, when Croatian forces recaptured the area.
He also was convicted of ordering two days of indiscriminate cluster bomb shelling of the Croatian capital, Zagreb, in May 1995 that killed at least seven civilians and injured more than 200.
Most of the crimes were "committed against elderly people, persons held in detention and civilians. The special vulnerability of these victims adds to the gravity of the crimes," said presiding Judge Bakone Moloto.
Martic, who made no comment throughout the hearing, stood still and showed no emotion as Moloto read out the verdict and his sentence.
The three-judge U.N. panel said Martic was deeply involved in a criminal plot with other Serb leaders, including Slobodan Milosevic, Gen. Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, to carve out an ethnically pure "greater Serbia" as Yugoslavia crumbled that would include about one-third of Croatia.
"It is clear that Milan Martic endorsed the goal of creating a unified Serb state," Moloto said.
Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader called Martic a key player in the aggression toward Croatians and said Martic was "responsible for the deaths of many Croats."
Even some Serbs applauded the verdict, saying it would help Croatia move on from its painful past.
Milorad Pupovac, a key leader of Croatia's ethnic Serbs, said Martic symbolized the hostility among some Serbs in Croatia in the early 1990s.
"We Serbs in Croatia are also interested in seeing that such a policy is finished and that those who carried it are penalized," Pupovac said.
Martic was indicted in July 1995, just two months after ordering the shelling of Zagreb. He eventually turned himself over to authorities in 2002.
The two-day indiscriminate attack in 1995 — using rockets loaded with cluster bombs — hit buildings including a school, a children's hospital and the Croatian national theater, Moloto said. Martic admitted to the press that he ordered the shelling to retaliate against Croatian attacks on Serbs and to warn against further attacks, Moloto said.
Describing attacks on Croat villages by Martic's forces, Moloto said that after the initial military push by Serb forces subsided, "acts of killing and violence were committed against the civilian non-Serb population who did not manage to flee. Houses, churches and property were destroyed and widespread looting was carried out."
In the villages of Hrvatska Dubica and Cerovljani in October 1991, Croats were forced from their homes, beaten and used as human shields by Serbs. When they fled, Serbs moved into their homes, Moloto said.
On Oct. 20, 1991, more than 40 villagers were held by Croatian Serb forces at a local fire station. Eleven were released or managed to escape, but the next day, the remaining prisoners were taken to the banks of a nearby river and killed, Moloto said. Their bodies were dumped in several graves, including a mass grave judges visited during the trial.
Martic surrendered to the U.N. court in May 2002 and pleaded not guilty to all 19 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
He was convicted Tuesday of 16 counts and acquitted of the charge of extermination, saying the number of deaths involved did not justify the charge. Judges dropped two other charges, saying they were covered by another charge in the indictment.
Prosecutors had called 45 witnesses to testify against Martic, including another Croatian Serb leader, Milan Babic, who was sentenced to 13 years for his involvement in the atrocities and later committed suicide in the tribunal's detention unit after testifying against Milosevic.
Ante Gotovina, the Croatian general who drove the rebel Serbs out of Krajina in 1995, also is on trial at the U.N. court for offenses committed during the operation to reclaim the region.