Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Croatia to Extend Witness and Victim Support

Unwillingness of witnesses to testify in court highlighted need for better protective measures in war crime cases and other criminal proceedings.
By Goran Jungvirth
The Croatian authorities have announced plans to roll out nationwide a pilot project to introduce better protection and support for victims and witnesses of crime.

The pilot scheme was introduced in 2008 – in courts in Zagreb, Osijek, Vukovar and Zadar – several years after it emerged during war crime trials that inadequate security safeguards were discouraging witnesses from testifying, thus affecting the quality of justice administered.

Officials this week cited the potential of the initiative to improve judicial fairness and efficiency.

“[The project] is about the humanity of the treatment of victims and witnesses, which increases the quality of the testimonies and the efficiency of the judiciary,” said Croatian justice minister Ivan Simonovic at a round-table debate on supporting witnesses and victims of crime, held on April 15.

He added that witness and victim support offices would be established at three more county courts by the end of the year – in Split, Rijeka and Sisak – and would then be introduced throughout the rest of the country.

Problems with witness and victim protection first emerged during the 2002 trial of eight Croatian military police officers for war crimes in Lora, a former Split naval base. The base functioned as a prison camp for mainly Serbian civilians and prisoners of war from 1992 to 1997, and became notorious for the sadistic torture and starvation that left many of its inmates dead.

During the trial, several key witnesses retracted their statements or refused to testify, with some saying that they had been threatened and harassed. Presiding judge Slavko Lozina reportedly questioned the credibility of prosecution witnesses.

The eight officers were at first acquitted in November 2002, raising a storm of protest from Serbia and international rights bodies.

Croatia’s Supreme Court reversed the verdict two years later, citing witness intimidation and a biased judge, and all eight accused were found guilty in a retrial and sentenced to prison terms. Two are still at large, having gone into hiding before the second trial started.

Despite the clear problems which emerged during the Lora case, little was done to improve witness and victim protection in the following years.

These lingering shortcomings again became obvious during the first war crimes case referred by International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, ICTY, to the Croatian judiciary – the 2007 trial of generals Mirko Norac and Rahim Ademi, who were accused of orchestrating the killing of ethnic Serb civilians by Croatian army troops during the Medak Pocket military operation of 1993.

Most of the protected witnesses in the case were former Serbian soldiers or civilians who had survived the Medak Pocket assault and were by then living in Serbia, and refused to travel to Croatia to testify out of fear for their safety.

The problem was addressed with the help of new technology – testimonies being heard in court via a video link.

Yet the unwillingness of the witnesses to appear in person highlighted the need for better protective measures in both war crime cases and other criminal proceedings.

This week’s debate on better protection and support for witnesses and victims was organised by the United Nations Development Programme, UNDP, and included representatives from Croatia’s police and prosecution offices, NGOs, as well as judicial officials from the United Kingdom, Sweden, France and the Netherlands.

The UNDP’s permanent representative to Croatia, Yuri Afanasiev, said that a UNDP survey conducted earlier this year showed that 61 per cent of Croatian police officers had learned about working with crime victims through their own experience alone – rather than through formal training – and that 58 per cent felt they could still improve their knowledge and conduct in this area.

While the survey indicated that victims and witnesses commended police conduct overall, it also showed they felt the force could be more effective in providing information about legal cases to those affected.

According to Croatia’s justice ministry, the pilot offices in the county courts of Zagreb, Osijek, Vukovar and Zadar extended support to 1,253 witnesses and victims in the course of the last year.

Commenting on the results, Supreme Court president Branko Hrvatin said the implementation of the project “went virtually unnoticed by the public, while the media showed interest only in cases bordering on sensationalism”.

Goran Jungvirth is an IWPR-trained reporter in Zagreb.

More IWPR's Global Voices

Georgian Monuments Under Threat
Hundreds of buildings are in dire need of restoration, but arguments continue over who has the authority to carry out works.
Georgian Monuments Under Threat
Abkhazia: Closure Cuts Off Health Care
Fake News in Iraq
Open access social media survey reflects fear and confusion over misinformation.
Stop the Abuse
Syria: Female Prisoners Speak Out