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Croatia’s Judiciary Shortcomings

March 28, 2008

By Elisabeth Maragoula*

Croatia represents somewhat of the Western Balkans’s beau ideal, advancing without much trouble down the road towards European Union accession. It is by and large meeting the EU’s benchmarks and cooperating with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). However, the country still faces its biggest obstacle in reforming the domestic judiciary system, and in so doing assuring that war crimes are prosecuted fairly.

Earlier this month, the Croatian media focused on what could have been presented as a TV drama: “Live from The Hague,’ the epic trial of former top Croatian generals, Ante Gotovina, Ivan Cermak and Mladen Markac. The three, considered heroes in their home country, are charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes committed during the 1995 Operation Storm, which left at least 37 ethnic Serbs dead and forced some 200,000 to flee.

However, while the heroes of the “Homeland War’ have received great media interest in Croatia, much less attention has been paid to the 20 to 30 war crimes trials held annually in local county courts – where Balkan justice is really put to the test.

So far, reforms have been sluggish. “There is slow progress,” says Documenta Director Vesna Terselic, though “there are still outstanding issues.” For example, says Terselic, there remains a need to intensify investigations, analyze the backlog of verdicts and cooperate regionally in the exchange of documentation.

Croatia’s current judiciary system is complex. Unlike Serbia, where a single court hears all the war criminal proceedings, Croatia has 21 county courts which are eligible to hear the trials, she explains. However, only 15 of them are active.

Today, there is more political will to finish these smaller cases than in the 1990’s or even a few years ago, but “courts could do more and there is always a clash [regarding] how much political will there is on intensifying investigations,” Terselic maintains.

Further, several NGOs, the EU and US have all cited a practice of bias against Serbs by the Croatian judiciary. There are still “major concerns,ÔøΩ? says Omer Fisher, researcher at Amnesty International’s (AI) Balkans team. “Despite some steps to investigate and prosecute war crimes against Croatian Serbs, widespread impunity continued for crimes allegedly committed by Croatian army and police officers,” AI’s 2007 Report said.

The European Commission reiterated this message in its 2007 Progress Report on Croatia. “A common standard of criminal accountability is not being applied irrespective of ethnicity. There remains widespread impunity for war crimes committed against ethnic Serbs.”

Since 1991, “more than 98 percent of the charges involved persons associated with Yugoslav Army or Serb paramilitaries, while less than two percent involved members of the Croatian armed forces,” the US Department of State cited a report by the chief state prosecutor as indicating in its 2007 Human Rights Report on Croatia. The US pointed out problems such as a case backlog, intimidation of witnesses and in-absentia group trials.

In its 2007 Report (.PDF), the Centre for Peace, Nonviolence and Human Rights noted that there has been little change from past policies. “The fact that the majority of war crime trials was conducted in absence of accused persons points to the policy which was used… in the early nineties.”

Ivo Josipovic, International Criminal Law Professor at Zagreb University, believes the county courts can perform fair trials, but admitted that improvements could be made. Over the “last several years, the situation is better,” he says, though it is “not always good enough.” When the accused is not present, “the picture of what happens is not good enough.”

Establishing the rule of law is a vital step on the path to joining the EU. Croatian authorities have shown goodwill in cooperating with the Hague, for example when they assisted in the capture of Gotovina in the Canary Islands in 2005; and in winning the trust of the ICTY, which in the same year transferred to the county courts the case of former Croatian generals Rahim Ademi and Mirko Norac, charged in the 1993 Medak Pocket operation.

“What we are doing is not only in order to meet EU membership criteria, but for our own sake as well. If judicial reform is something worthy in itself, and it is, then we have to implement it for our sake,” Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader vowed earlier this month.

Croatia is slated to wrap up negotiations with the EU in 2009, and join in 2010. There has been progress in Croatia’s ability to prosecute war crimes on its own territory, but more attention needs to be paid to the system’s shortcomings, so that an impartial and just system is in place before then.


*Elisabeth Maragoula is the EU Affairs editor for New Europe newspaper in Athens, Greece. She has worked for Associated Press Television News and the Los Angeles Times in Rome, and speaks Italian and Greek. Elisabeth holds an MA in International Relations from Schiller International University in Paris, and a BA in Economics from UCLA in her native state of California. Her research and articles focus on a range of Balkan issues.

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