Some critics of the government were prosecuted on criminal charges. Tens of thousands of Croatian Serbs remained exiled: many were prevented from returning because of administrative obstacles; others feared for their safety if they returned. Dozens of houses of Croatian Serbs, possibly more, were deliberately destroyed for political reasons. Political prisoners faced unfair trial procedures. Police ill-treated detainees and at least one person died as a result. Although hundreds of cases of "disappearance" were resolved, the fate of more than 2,000 people who went missing or had "disappeared" in previous years remained unclear. There was little progress in resolving hundreds of cases of ethnically motivated killings committed in 1995.

In January the mandate of the UN Transitional Authority in Eastern Slavonia, Baranja and Sirmium (UNTAES) ended and the region returned to the full control of the Croatian authorities. Although the peaceful transition of the region from rebel Croatian Serb control was hailed as a success, international monitors who remained continued to report ethnically motivated incidents of violence. A UN Police Support Group was mandated to monitor the civilian police in the Danube region following the un's withdrawal. Violent attacks continued against Croatian Serbs and were reported to have increased in Eastern Slavonia following the withdrawal of UNTAES. In July a mixed Serb- Hungarian couple was murdered in Topolje village near Beli Manastir in the Baranja region. Local police immediately arrested a suspect, a former Croatian soldier, who confessed. He had reportedly threatened the couple with violence previously and they had told the police, although no steps were taken to offer them additional protection. As the suspect was deemed mentally unstable, the opening of his trial was postponed pending his psychiatric investigation. The UN Police Support Group's mandate was terminated in October; it was replaced by international civilian police monitors supported by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) mission.

In April a plan for the return of refugees and displaced persons was severely criticized by the international community because it was vague and imposed unjustified conditions on Croatian Serbs who wanted to return. A plan which met the demands of the international community, particularly the missions of the OSCE and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), was passed by parliament in June. However, implementation of the plan was slow, mainly owing to lack of political will to remove local administrative obstacles. According to government statistics, by the end of the year some 2,000 Croatian Serbs had returned to the country under the plan, in addition to several thousand Croatian Serbs who reportedly returned unofficially and whose number was impossible to confirm independently. According to the same statistics, more than 22,000 Croatian displaced persons were able to return to their pre-war homes. Some 20,000 Bosnian Croats remained as refugees in Croatia; many of them occupied the pre-war homes of Croatian Serbs. In addition, several hundred Croats from Kosovo province in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) settled in Croatia by similarly moving into Serb-owned property. The authorities did little to find them alternative accommodation.

The trial ended of Croatian Serb Slavko Dokmanovic at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (the Tribunal) after he was found dead in his cell in June. The death, an apparent suicide, happened eight days before the verdict was expected. He had faced charges related to the killing of approximately 260 people taken from Vukovar hospital by Yugoslav National Army (JNA) forces in 1991 and had been arrested with the support of UNTAES personnel in 1997 (see Amnesty International Report 1998). Four other men indicted by the Tribunal for crimes committed in Croatia remained at large and were believed to be in the FRY or Bosnia-Herzegovina. In December the Tribunal's prosecutor requested the FRY to defer to its competence proceedings instigated against three of these suspects.

In September members of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment visited Croatia. In November the UN Committee against Torture considered Croatia's second periodic report on its implementation of the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The Committee raised concern relating to several cases about which it had been briefed by Amnesty International. In particular, it asked the authorities about the status of the case of Sefik Mujkic, who died following torture by the secret police in 1995. Two police officers were found guilty of extracting a statement from him and causing serious bodily harm in May 1996, but both were released pending a retrial ordered by the Supreme Court (see below). The Committee also requested Croatia to respond in full to allegations made by Amnesty International and other organizations that human rights violations, including torture, committed by Croatian security forces in 1995 had not been adequately investigated and that in most cases no one had been brought to account for them.

Croatian Serbs and critics of the government were the most frequently targeted for a range of human rights violations. Journalists and other critics of the government were prosecuted on criminal charges. The trial of Viktor Ivancic and Marinko Culic, editor and journalist of the independent weekly Feral Tribune (see Amnesty International Report 1998), ended with their acquittal in December. Victor Ivancic and Petar Doric, another Feral Tribune journalist, also came under investigation for "slandering" President Franjo Tudjman because of an article published in March. If they were imprisoned, Amnesty International would consider them prisoners of conscience. In all these cases, the state prosecutor received the President's endorsement to pursue the charges.

Other journalists were prosecuted on criminal charges. For example, Davor Butkovic, former editor of the independent weekly Globus, and journalist Vlado Vurusic were found guilty of "spreading false information" and given suspended prison sentences for reporting that an individual indicted by the Tribunal, who at the time was at large, was seen at residences owned by the Ministry of Defence in 1996. Others had reported the individual's presence there, but were not charged. In hundreds of other civil cases, libel and slander legislation was used to silence government critics.

Dozens of houses, possibly more, were destroyed for political reasons. For example, explosives were deliberately detonated in the weekend house of a man in Karlobag in March after he and two others had made public their willingness to testify before the Tribunal about violations of humanitarian law by Croatian forces during the war. In most cases, however, houses were destroyed to prevent Croatian Serbs from returning to them. For example, the house of Mirko Mrkalj and his family in Donji Sjenicak was destroyed by an arson attack in early April, just one month after the family had visited it to plan their return. No one was known to have been brought to account for these criminal acts.

Despite agreements by the authorities to facilitate return, tens of thousands of Croatian Serbs in the FRY or Bosnia-Herzegovina who had announced their wish to return to Croatia were unable to do so. In addition to house destruction, other acts of arson appeared to be intimidatory and intended to prevent the return of the owners. The Croatian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights reported more than 100 such cases of arson in the first quarter of the year alone. Continued impunity for past abuses and the government's failure to guarantee safety contributed to Croatian Serb mistrust of the authorities; at least 7,000 Croatian Serbs left Croatia as a result. For example, official condoning of continued harassment and ill-treatment prompted Jovo Dabiç and Ljuba Dabic to leave Croatia in May. Jovo Dabic had been repeatedly attacked in his village near Hrvatska Kostajnica, including by rioting Bosnian Croat refugees in May 1997 when police allegedly stood by while he was beaten (see Amnesty International Report 1998). In September the UN Police Support Group reported increasing numbers of ethnically motivated violent incidents, including shootings, explosions, assault and vandalism. It also reported a growing unwillingness by some police officers to take action in such cases.

Several trials for political prisoners fell short of international standards for fairness. Some political prisoners were held in pre-trial detention illegally. Radenko Radojcic, for example, was released in October after the court reconsidered its original objection to his release (fear of the prisoner absconding), stating that it now believed that it was unlikely that he would abscond, particularly in view of his poor health. Scores of other Croatian Serbs facing nationally defined war crimes charges remained imprisoned. In February the Supreme Court ruled in favour of an appeal by Mirko Graorac, who had been sentenced after an unfair trial in 1996 to 20 years' imprisonment followed by expulsion from the country for committing war crimes against a civilian population and war crimes against prisoners of war. The Supreme Court dismissed almost all elements of the defence appeal, most importantly that the conviction had been based almost entirely on circumstantial and uncorroborated evidence and that the defendant had not been allowed to call witnesses. However, it ruled in favour of the appeal on grounds that it was necessary to re-examine the Croatian Army soldiers whose original testimony on behalf of the prosecutor implicated Croatia in the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Ill-treatment by the police continued to be reported. The authorities acted quickly in the case of Riccardo Cetina, an Italian tourist who died from injuries inflicted by police after an alleged traffic offence. The authorities stated that this was the first case of its kind, despite several earlier reports of ill-treatment in police custody. No date was set for the retrial of two secret police officers charged with "extracting a statement" from and "inflicting serious bodily harm" on Sefik Mujkic, a Croatian resident of Bosniac nationality who died after being tortured in September 1995. In other cases where victims needed hospital treatment as a result of police ill-treatment, it was not known whether action was taken against the perpetrators.

Exhumations helped clarify the fate of hundreds of people who went missing and "disappeared" in previous years. The authorities exhumed 938 bodies from graves in Vukovar between April and June, of which more than half were identified. The exhumations were conducted as a result of information provided by the FRY authorities as part of continuing efforts to resolve the thousands of cases of missing persons from Croatia, many of whom "disappeared" in the custody of the JNA in 1991 (see Amnesty International Report 1992, Yugoslavia entry). Although most of the exhumed victims had died during the struggle for control of the town, some showed signs that they may have been extrajudicially executed or otherwise unlawfully killed, according to Croatian investigators. For example, the remains of Dragutin Savoric were identified; he was last seen during a prisoner exchange in 1991, but was reportedly separated from the other prisoners by JNA forces. According to the Croatian authorities, his corpse had two bullet wounds to the head and one to the right foot. Little progress, however, was made in resolving the cases of more than 700 Croatian Serbs who went missing during the armed conflict, many of whom may have "disappeared".

There was little progress in criminal investigations and prosecutions in cases of human rights violations, including hundreds of ethnically motivated killings, committed during the 1995 security forces' offensives Operations Flash and Storm. The Justice Ministry stated that the statistics it had provided about these killings were meaningless, and it continued to refuse to provide information about individual cases, including some which had been well documented and publicized. International organizations had discovered and documented the bodies of more than 200 victims, and government statistics from 1995 had indicated that more than 450 civilians had been killed during the offensives.

Amnesty International raised with the authorities a variety of human rights concerns. Attacks on human rights defenders were featured throughout the year as part of Amnesty International's campaign to mark the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In August the organization published a document, Croatia: Impunity for killings after Storm, and launched an action to provide information about specific killings to the appropriate judicial bodies. Amnesty International recommended that the authorities take steps to ascertain whether any attempt was made to cover up crimes committed during and after Operations Flash and Storm.

In November the organization informed the UN Committee against Torture about some of its concerns.

In December Amnesty International published Croatia: Mirko Graorac, Shortchanging justice – war crimes trials in former Yugoslavia.

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