comment 06 Nov 12

Kerestinec Verdict Shows Double Standards in Croatian Judiciary

The Croatian courts apply double standards when trying Croats and Serbs for war crimes.

Drago Hedl

“We congratulate the judiciary!” was the ironic comment of Zoran Sprajc, the popular anchor of the main news programme on Croatian Television, on hearing of the lenient sentences handed out to five former military policemen for war crimes by the District Court in Zagreb.

It was one of the rare public condemnations of the shamefully low sentences given by Judge Marijan Garac on October 31.

He sentenced the five men who had systematically tortured 34 Serb civilians and members of the Yugoslav People’s Army, JNA, between late 1991 and mid-1992 in Kerestinec, JNA’s former rocket base, to a total of just eight and a half years.

The court had established beyond a shadow of a doubt that Kerestinec was a place in which prisoners of war and some civilians, were tortured, beaten, abused, subjected to electric shocks and forced to have oral sex.

Even though Croatian law states that a war crime is punishable by a sentence of between five and 20 years of prison, the court sentenced all five to a punishment considerably below the minimum punishment.

Stjepan Klaric, the former commander of Kerestinec prison, was given three and a half years in prison. One of his subordinates was given two years, and the remaining three policemen just one year each.

“There is no doubt whatsoever that prisoners of war in Kerestinec were sexually abused on a number of occasions,” said the judge when he read out his verdict, having referred to just   some of the horrors the prisoners had been exposed to. 

Among the abuses, he mentioned how two of the prisoners had been forced into a fist fight, and how afterwards the guards had beaten up one of them with planks – the one they had bet on to win.

But if the court had trusted the witnesses and the victims of all this abuse, and if it had determined beyond any doubt at all that the defendants were guilty, the logical question to ask is why the sentences were not only low, but below even the legal minimum?

This is yet another verdict by the Croatian judiciary confirms that the European Union was right when it identified the state of judiciary as the weakest link in the chain that the Zagreb government is using to pull itself towards full-fledged EU membership.

In addition to the recent stern criticism by Berlin, Croatia’s most important ally on Zagreb’s road to Brussels, of its readiness for EU membership, Croatia has also been criticized by Great Britain.

London, like Berlin, has identified deep flaws in Croatia’s judicial system. After a recent meeting of the parliamentary European Scrutiny Committee, British MPs decided to postpone the ratification of Croatia’s accession contract.

Westminster will now wait for the final report by the European Commission, due in the spring of next year, to assess if there has been sufficient progress on areas of concern, amongst them the state of the judiciary.

The verdict passed by the Zagreb District Court concerning the abuse of civilians and prisoners of war in Kerestinec confirms that the scepticism towards Croatia’s readiness to become the 28th member of the Union on July 1 next year is justified.

That verdict, as with many other war crimes verdicts in the past, displays a highly partial approach to sentencing. When Croats are tried for war crimes, the punishments are vastly more lenient than those meted out to Serbs tried for equally serious crimes.

Look at the case of the Serb paramilitaries, who were found guilty of crimes very similar to those at Kerestinec. When they were found guilty of holding Croatian soldiers prisoner in Borovo, in Vukovar in December 2005, the six Serbs were sentenced to a total of 49 years in prison by the Croatian court.

The prison commander, Jovan Curcic, was sentenced to 14 years; the lowest sentence to be given was six years, to one of the prison guards. The difference in the sentences given to the Croatian policemen for similar war crimes in Kerestinec is more than obvious.

For another example that shows why Croatian judicial system has received such criticism from the international community, look at the trial of Mihajlo Hrastov, a former member of the special police, who killed 13 captured JNA soldiers at the at the Koranski bridge in Karlovac in 1991. 

Hrastov and his defence claimed that the murder of 13 imprisoned soldiers was committed in self-defence. The trial lasted for over 20 years (!), during which time Hrastov was acquitted three times and convicted twice.

The Supreme Court sentenced him this September to just four years of prison, but this verdict is not final either, because there is a chance that Hrastov may appeal against this verdict too.

The Croatian public has often had good reason to be dissatisfied with the sentences given out to members of the Serb paramilitary or the JNA for war crimes by courts at The Hague or Belgrade.

They were especially bitter about the sentence of just five years imprisonment that was given to Veselin Sljivancanin, a former JNA commander, at The Hague in 2007.

However, the same public fails to react when it comes to the shamefully low sentences received by members of the Croatian armed forces, for such terrible crimes as those committed in Kerestinec.



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