Bosnian Croat wartime leader Jadranko Prlic on Monday appealed against his conviction for the murder of Muslims during the 1990s Bosnian war, denying any involvement and saying Croats were "forced" to defend themselves in the conflict.
Prlic and five other defendants launched seven days of appeal hearings at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) against prison sentences ranging between 10 and 25 years.
Prlic was sentenced to 25 years in 2013 on charges of murdering and deporting Muslims during Bosnia's 1992-1995 war which killed more than 100,000 people and left 2.2 million homeless.
Five other Bosnian Croat military and political leaders were also handed heavy prison terms by the tribunal based in The Hague, after being found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
"I was not part of the chain of command," of the HVO, the main Bosnian-Croat army in Bosnia at the time, Prlic told the panel of five judges.
But Croatian communities needed to organise themselves, also militarily, "due to the unreactiveness" of the Bosnian Republic for their "defence", he said.
"The Croatian community was one of the foundations of the creation of the... Republic of Bosnia-Hercegovina and not an instrument of its destruction," Prlic added.
His lawyer Michael Karnavas said the trial verdict showed a "pattern of calculated neglect of evidence, abject disregard of context and with all due respect, a reckless abandonment of fairness".
UN prosecutor Douglas Stringer however dismissed Prlic's claims, saying Bosnian Croats had cynically exploited attempts to end the conflict to their own aims.
"Rather than raising the peace process to advance peace, these appellants in fact seized on the peace process to advance their own territorial aims," Stringer said.
- 'Greater Croatian state' -
Judges at the sentencing said Prlic, now 57, "made a significant contribution to a joint criminal enterprise... to drive out the Muslim population" from Bosnia in a bid to create a "greater Croatian state".
A former president and later also prime minister of the self-proclaimed Bosnian Croat state of Herceg-Bosna, Prlic has been on trial before The Hague-based ICTY since 2006.
His co-defendants are his former defence minister Bruno Stojic, and four senior military officials: Slobodan Praljak, Milivoj Petkovic, Valentin Coric, and Berislav Pusic.
"The Prlic et al. trial was one of the tribunal's largest and most complicated," the ICTY said in a statement, adding that a total of 326 witnesses had appeared.
- Mass arrests, murder -
At the end, the ICTY's judges ruled the six defendants removed Muslims and other non-Croats by force, intimidation and terror through "mass arrests of Bosnian Muslims who were then either murdered, beaten, sexually assaulted, robbed of their property and otherwise abused".
The campaign included the nine-month siege of the southern city of Mostar from June 1993 by Bosnian Croat troops, which saw the destruction of its historical four-century-old bridge, an act that the court said caused "disproportionate damage for the Muslim civilian population of Mostar."
Bosnian Croats and Muslims were allies against Bosnian Serbs during most of the country's 1992-1995 war.
However, they also fought against each other for 17 months in 1993 and 1994 in southern and central Bosnia.
As early as December 1991, Croatia's late ultra-nationalist president Franjo Tudjman and other Croat leaders realised that "in order to achieve the ultimate goal of a Croatian territory it was necessary to modify its ethnic composition," said Jean-Claude Antonetti in the 2013 ruling.
Herceg-Bosna was proclaimed in August 1993, but dissolved in 1995 just before the Dayton peace accords and integrated with the Bosnian Serb entity Republika Srpska to become Bosnia-Hercegovina.
A verdict in the appeal is due in November 2017, in what will be one of the ICTY's last judgements as it winds down more than 20 years after it opened.