Republic of Croatia
Head of state: Vlatko Pavletic (replaced Franjo Tudjman in December)
Head of government: Zlatko Matesa
Population: 4.8 million
Official language: Croatian
Death penalty: abolitionist for all crimes
There was continued resistance by the Croatian authorities to the return of tens of thousands of Croatian Serbs who fled the country during the armed conflict between 1991 and 1995. There were sporadic violent incidents against Croatian Serbs who remained in the Eastern Slavonia region. Independent journalists and people critical of the government or the ruling political party, the Hrvatska Demokratska Zajednica (HDZ), Croatian Democratic Union, continued to face harassment, which could lead to the imprisonment of prisoners of conscience. Reports of ill-treatment and use of excessive force by police increased. The further deterioration in Croatia's cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (the Tribunal) led the Tribunal's President to report Croatia's non-compliance to the UN Security Council in November.
In November Vlatko Pavletic was appointed acting President, owing to the serious illness of President Franjo Tudjman who was hospitalized in November. President Tudjman died on 11 December. General elections, which had first been announced for December, were postponed until 3 January 2000.
Problems with return and reintegration
During 1999, according to Croatian government statistics, nearly 9,000 Croatian Serbs returned to the country, including around 5,000 under the return program adopted by parliament in June 1998. In addition, around 5,000 Croatian Serbs who had been internally displaced in Eastern Slavonia reportedly returned to their pre-war homes elsewhere in Croatia, and some 18,000 Croats returned to their homes in Eastern Slavonia.
However, tens of thousands of Croatian Serbs who had expressed their willingness to return remained refugees in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) and in the Bosnian Serb entity. They had problems establishing their right to citizenship under Croatian law and experienced delays and difficulties in obtaining identification papers through local consular offices. Those who managed to return to Croatia faced further obstacles from local authorities when trying to regain their property.
Although the security situation for Croatian Serbs apparently improved in Eastern Slavonia and other parts of Croatia, notably the Knin area, sporadic incidents of ethnically motivated violence against them continued to be reported. For example, two Croatian Serbs were killed in villages near Vukovar in Eastern Slavonia in May and August. Although in both cases police arrested a suspect almost immediately, no charges had been brought against either by the end of 1999. In addition, police investigations into the August killing appeared to be inadequate, as police failed to act on information provided by eyewitnesses about a group of people involved in the killing.
Restrictions on freedom of expression
Government officials brought suits for defamation against independent journalists and others who criticized the government or the HDZ party, apparently to silence them. In most cases, private criminal complaints were brought by officials against people criticizing them. In addition, public prosecutors brought charges against people who had published or released information criticizing government officials. Many of the charges brought could result in imprisonment.
- In April Orlanda Obad, a journalist with the daily newspaper Jutarnji list, was charged with publishing, and unauthorized procurement of, trade secrets. She had written a series of articles in 1998 detailing the financial holdings of President Tudjman's wife in a Zagreb bank. It was alleged that the President had unlawfully failed to declare this as income. If convicted of these charges, she could be imprisoned for up to five years, and would be a prisoner of conscience. No date had been set by the end of 1999 for the case to go to trial.
Ill-treatment by police
There was an increasing number of reports of police ill-treating people in custody or using excessive force in carrying out their duties. In the few instances in which the authorities responded to such allegations, investigations and prosecutions were not pursued promptly and impartially.
- In October special police officers in Dubrovnik were reported to have severely ill-treated Nikola Miletic, a bar owner, after he failed to close his bar on time. When one police officer twisted his arm behind his back and he tried to free himself, another officer beat him. Nikola Miletic also claimed that after he was handcuffed, an officer touched the handcuffs with an electro-shock baton. He was detained overnight in the police station. Several hours after his release he lost consciousness and had to undergo hospital treatment. According to his medical records, he had sustained bruising to his head, neck and shoulders as well as to his eye.
- In September the retrial started of two members of the Croatian secret police, the SZUP, charged in connection with the death in custody of Sefik Mujkic, a Croatian citizen of Bosnian origin, in September 1995. A forensic expert who testified at the retrial stated that the victim had been seated while being repeatedly beaten with a blunt object on his upper back, arms, legs and soles of his feet. The expert concluded that Sefik Mujkic's death was caused by a combination of the injuries he sustained, psychological stress and an existing heart condition (of which the police officers were allegedly aware). An AI delegate who attended the trial considered that the public prosecutor accepted without questioning the defendants' defence that they were acting in self-defence. In December the two officers were found guilty of extracting a confession by the use of force and of inflicting grievous bodily harm. They were sentenced to 18 months' imprisonment.
Failure to achieve justice for war crimes
Trials continued of people suspected of having committed war crimes, including trials held in absentia. Many of these trials violated international standards of fairness. AI urged the Croatian authorities to hand over the relevant case files in all war crimes cases to the Prosecutor of the Tribunal, for an independent review of the evidence against the suspects in order to determine whether it was sufficient to pursue a prosecution.
AI remained concerned that the authorities failed to undertake serious efforts to investigate and prosecute members of the Croatian armed forces or police suspected of war crimes and other human rights violations. In September the Justice Ministry and the Council for Cooperation with the International Court of Justice and International Criminal Court released a "White Paper" which was a comprehensive overview of Croatia's cooperation with the Tribunal as well as of domestic prosecutions related to violations of international humanitarian law since 1991. The White Paper also included the latest official statistics on investigations and prosecutions before Croatian courts for crimes committed against Croatian Serbs in 1995. However, the information provided appeared to be incomplete, out of date and misleading, and contained virtually no detailed recent information on cases which had been brought to the government's attention by domestic and international organizations, including AI.
On 2 November the outgoing Tribunal President wrote to the President of the UN Security Council, denouncing repeated non-compliance with provisions of the Tribunal's Statute by Croatia and the FRY. The Tribunal President criticized Croatia for its failure to recognize the Tribunal's jurisdiction over events relating to the 1995 Croatian government offensives, Operations Flash and Storm, and for its failure to transfer indicted suspects to the Tribunal's custody. She repeated her earlier requests to the FRY authorities to arrest and surrender three Yugoslav citizens indicted for the killings of more than 260 unarmed men in Vukovar in November 1991.
The trial of six members of the Croatian security forces for crimes committed against Croatian Serb civilians in the Pakracka Poljana area in 1991 and 1992 ended in May. The Zagreb County Court acquitted four of the defendants and sentenced the remaining two to prison terms of up to 20 months for minor offences. One of the defendants, Miro Bajramovic, had confessed in a Croatian newspaper in 1997 to killing more than 70 Serbs. However the indictment contained only one charge of murder and one of attempted murder, as well as crimes of illegal detention and extortion. Local non-governmental organizations expressed concern that the charges were too weak and vague. For example, the deaths of three Serb civilians as a result of their detention were mentioned in the indictment but the role of the defendants in their deaths was not raised. There was further concern that some key prosecution witnesses, all Croatian Serbs who had been detained and ill-treated by the accused, had changed their earlier statements out of fear of reprisals.
In contrast, prosecutions of Croatian Serbs for war crimes were pursued vigorously. In most such cases trials failed to meet international standards of fairness. Five Croatian Serbs from the Eastern Slavonian village of odolovci were convicted of war crimes against the civilian population by the Osijek County Court in May and sentenced to long-term imprisonment. They had been charged with indiscriminate shelling of Croatian-held villages in 1991 and 1992 and had been already convicted in 1995 after a trial in absentia . AI concluded that the trial court could not be considered an impartial and independent tribunal, and that the defendants' rights to be presumed innocent and to present a full defence had been violated. In November the Supreme Court quashed the lower court's verdict and sent the case back for a further retrial, in recognition of the substantial violations of domestic criminal procedure which had taken place.
The retrial for war crimes of another Serb, Mirko Graorac, was postponed in September after his lawyer had requested that the case be transferred from the Split County Court as he did not consider it to be impartial. Mirko Graorac had been convicted by the Split County Court of war crimes against prisoners of war and against the civilian population in 1996 after a trial which AI considered to be unfair. In March 1998 the Supreme Court quashed the lower court's verdict and sent the case back for retrial, although AI expressed concern that the Supreme Court's revision of the case did not address the violations of a right to fair trial but only sought to clarify the role of certain prosecution witnesses. In November 1999 the Supreme Court refused the defence request.
AI continued to urge the Croatian and FRY authorities to clarify the fate and whereabouts of more than 2,000 people still missing since the armed conflict in Croatia. AI specifically called upon the FRY authorities to provide the Croatian government with information on grave sites reportedly containing the remains of some 300 Croats who had been taken prisoner in late 1991 and transferred to FRY territory.
AI also reminded the Croatian authorities of their obligation to ensure the efficient functioning of the Subcommission for Detained and Missing Persons for the Croatian Danube region (Subcommission), as agreed between the Croatian government and the departing UN Transitional Authority for Eastern Slavonia (UNTAES) in January 1998. According to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), by September 1999 the Subcommission had not been fully established as no Serb delegates had been included. The OSCE further noted that apparently no attempts had been made by the Croatian government to locate Serb missing persons in the region. Organizations representing relatives of Croatian Serbs who had gone missing in the Krajina area after the 1995 offensives told AI that they were not aware of any exhumations of grave sites thought to contain the bodies of Croatian Serbs.
Some progress was made in resolving the approximately 2,000 outstanding cases of mainly Croatian missing persons. According to a government commission, more than 100 bodies were exhumed during 1999 and roughly half of them were identified. The commission stated in November that it was still looking for some 1,900 missing persons.
AI country reports and visits
- Croatia: Fear for safety violent attacks against Serbs in Eastern Slavonia (AI Index: EUR 64/004/99)
- Croatia: Shortchanging Justice The "Sodolovci" group (AI Index: EUR 64/006/99)
An AI delegate visited Croatia in September and October to conduct research and trial observations.
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