To Croatians, General Ante Gotovina is a hero, a symbol of the country’s independence after the breakup of Yugoslavia.
To Serbians, he’s a genocidal war criminal as a leader of Operation Storm, a four-day battle for Croatian independence that triggered a mass Serbian exodus in 1995.
Gotovina’s 24-year prison sentence imposed by The Hague’s International Criminal Tribunal was reversed earlier this month in a stunning acquittal. Thousands of Croatians celebrated in Zagreb’s central square as they watched a live broadcast of the U.N. court proceeding in The Hague.
Gotovina owes his freedom largely to Greenberg Traurig partner Greg Kehoe, a Tampa, Fla., litigator who led the defense team, along with his co-counsel, Joe Reeder of Greenberg Traurig’s Washington office and Luka Misetic, a Chicago solo attorney.
Gotovina hired the three lawyers six years ago, shortly after he was apprehended after years of hiding in Europe. Kehoe and Reeder represented the former general, who was tried along with a junior general, Mladen Markac, in 2011.
Kehoe’s team lost at trial before the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal, which took place from March 2008 until September 2010.
But the lawyers were victorious when the case went before a five-judge appellate panel. The panel ruled 3-2 to acquit both generals.
“The case involved a Croatian army military operation to retake Croatian land held by the Serbs,” Kehoe said. “The prosecution’s case was focused on their contention that artillery was used to expel the civilian population. The facts established that the artillery attacks were directed on military targets and caused no civilian deaths or injuries.”
Markus Wagner, an associate professor of international law at the University of Miami School of Law, said that while the trial court looked at the totality of the evidence, the appellate court “interpreted the case much more narrowly.”
Still, the 139-page appellate ruling was hardly unanimous, he noted.
“If you read the opinions, you see there was a lot of disharmony, to put it mildly,” he said.
Observers are watching closely to see if the standard applied by the appellate panel will be applied in other pending cases before The Hague tribunal, notably that of Serbian Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj, who is facing charges of crimes against humanity and violations of the customs of war.
Greenberg Traurig was paid for its services by the government of Croatia.
The case is one of a string of international cases Kehoe has handled. He represented Mohammed Hussein Ali, the former police commissioner in Kenya, in criminal proceedings before the International Criminal Court.
Ali was charged with crimes against humanity for failing to do enough to halt the 2007 post-election violence in Kenya in which about 1,200 people died. In a 2011 hearing before the ICC, Kehoe and his team argued the police kept Kenya from sinking into anarchy.
In January, the ICC dismissed all charges against Ali. Since its inception 13 years ago, the court had dismissed charges only twice before.
Kehoe, a former federal prosecutor in Miami and Tampa, got his start in international law when he was tapped to serve as a prosecutor at The Hague’s International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia from 1995 to 2000.
His next government assignment was to set up a Baghdad court following the fall of Saddam Hussein and advise a prosecution team to try the deposed Iraqi leader and his associates. As regime crimes liaison for the Iraqi special tribunal from 2004 to 2005, he also participated in victim exhumations, document review and courthouse design.
In 2006, Kehoe joined Greenberg and moved back to Tampa, where his family is based. He’s currently remaining on U.S. soil as he litigates a $100 million contract dispute.
But not for long, likely.
“I expect to have more international cases soon,” Kehoe noted.
Julie Kay writes for the Daily Business Review in Miami, an affiliate of the Daily Report.