Analysis 07 Aug 13

Croatia: Most War Crimes Still Not Prosecuted

The first half of 2013 in Croatia saw little progress in launching new war crimes prosecutions, with only a fifth of all cases fully prosecuted so far, according to rights watchdogs.

Boris Pavelic
BIRN
Zagreb

Croatia significantly improved the prosecution of war crimes over the years when negotiations to join the EU were still in progress, but questions have been raised about how this process will continue now the country has secured its membership of the European club.

During the years of negotiations, there were verdicts in several major cases, such as the conviction of former Croatian general Branimir Glavas for crimes against Serb civilians in Osijek and the jailing of former Croatian general Mirko Norac for his involvement in the wartime killings of Serbs in the ‘Medak Pocket’.

Several major trials have also started over the last two years, like the prosecution of Tomislav Mercep, former political strongman and interior ministry advisor, for war crimes against Serbs in Pakrac, Kutina and Zagreb. The trial of former Sisak police chief Djuro Brodarac and his deputy Vladimir Milankovic for war crimes against Serb civilians in Sisak also started recently.

But since Croatian generals Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac were acquitted by the Hague Tribunal in November last year, no information has been made public about new investigations into war crimes perpetrated during the 1995 military operation called Oluja (Storm), despite the fact that the Croatian president and prime minister vowed that prosecutions would continue.

So far, only one sentence has been handed down for war crimes perpetrated after operation Storm. After in the courts, former Croatian army officer Bozo Bacelic was sentenced to five years and ten months in prison in June this year.

Bacelic was jailed for killing 76-year-old Nikola Damjanic and 74-year-old Milica Damjanic and burning their bodies in August 1995 in the village of Prokljan in central Dalmatia after the operation ended.

Bacelic was tried for the murders in 2002, but acquitted. The supreme court annulled the verdict and ordered a new trial, but Bacelic fled in 2007 and was only arrested in Germany in 2012. He still has the right to appeal against the new sentence.

The arrest of nine Croatian Serbs from the village of Trpinja on July 11, for killing at least 70 Croatian civilians and prisoners of war in 1991, was the result of newly-discovered evidence indicating their guilt, the prosecutor said.

The Trpinja arrests were one of the few new war crimes prosecutions in Croatia this year, but they raised fears among Croatian Serbs that ethnically-biased justice had returned.

No single ethnic Croat has been arrested in the country so far this year on war crimes charges.

Ethnic intolerance helps commanders evade justice

“It is becoming harder to prosecute war crimes,” Eugen Jakovcic from Croatian human rights group Documenta told BIRN.

Jakovcic warned that “an atmosphere in which witnesses would testify against their own nation’s suspects is still hard to create, and media interest is getting lower”.

On top of that, “politicians and public figures openly express intolerance towards ethnic minorities, Serbs especially”, he said.

Because of this, he predicted, “war crimes perpetrators and commanders, especially higher ones, will stay unpunished” in Croatia.

The Croatian prosecutor’s office has a list of 490 war crimes to be prosecuted in the country.

According to official sources, by the end of September last year, 316 of the perpetrators were known and 174 unknown.

But 122 sentences were handed down by courts, representing about a fifth of all war crimes cases.

Jakovcic pointed out that regional cooperation needs to be strengethened because “many former members of Serbian forces are out of the Croatian judiciary’s reach”.

Rights activists also claim that there is a lack of political will to help war crimes victims, almost two decades after the conflict ended.

“The current government continues the mistakes of the previous ones, and offers no clear and constructive solutions,” Jakovcic said.

The families of those killed in the war have sued the state, he explained, but they lost 90 per cent of those lost the cases, and have had to pay high court expenses, which in some cases amount to almost 15,000 euro.

For comparison, the average Croatian monthly income is about 700 euro, and pensions are about 300 euro.

“The lack of definite war crimes sentences is the direct cause for the rejection of the compensation requests by the courts,” Jakovcic said.

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