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Croatia: Lora Retrial Eases Pressure on Sanader

Overturning of infamous trial verdict shows Croatia is taking criticism of its judiciary seriously.
By Drago Hedl

The supreme court decision last week to overturn a controversial ruling in a trial for crimes committed in the Lora military prison in Split in 1992 is intended to reassure the Hague tribunal that Croatia can be trusted to hold its own war crimes cases.


The August 19 decision followed an appeal by the Split district state prosecutor against the original ruling of the city court to free the eight suspects, who were accused of torturing their mainly Serb prisoners.


Supreme court judge Zlata Lipnjak Bosanac annulled the original judgment and ordered a retrial of the eight men before a new panel of judges, saying the facts were established “incorrectly and incompletely” in the earlier trial.


The order for the retrial comes at a time when Croatia is anxious to show that its courts, despite such judgments as the one passed in the Lora trial, are capable of taking on war crimes cases that the Hague tribunal is willing to transfer to the local judiciary.


Zagreb has in mind the forthcoming trials of four indicted Croat generals, Mirko Norac, Rahim Ademi, Ivan Cermak and Mladen Markac, as well as possible new indictments that could arrive from the tribunal this year.


The Lora case involved eight former members of the 72nd Military Police Company - Tomislav Duic, Tonci Vrkic, Miljenko Bajic, Josip Bikic, Davor Banic, Emilio Bungur, Ante Gudic and Andjelko Botic - indicted for war crimes against civilians between March and September 1992.


The prosecution said the men humiliated, abused and tortured their mainly Serb prisoners, causing the deaths of two, Nenad Knezevic and Gojko Bulovic, and leaving two, Milosav Katalina and Djordje Katic, seriously injured.


The original trial, conducted by Judge Slavko Lozina, triggered hostile criticism at home and abroad. Notably, the judge shook hands with the indicted men before each hearing, displaying apparent sympathy for them.


The judge was also criticised for starting one hearing by congratulating the Croatian national football team for its win in a World Cup match against Italy, adding inappropriately that he was ready to postpone the trial proceedings if Croatia got through to the finals.


Explaining his decision to free the suspects, Judge Lozina appeared to ridicule the claims made by Miroslav Katalina concerning his treatment in Lora jail, saying that “had he been tortured as much as he claims, not even Rambo would have survived”.


The decision to order a retrial will please Prime Minister Ivo Sanader, whose chief policy goal of European Union membership by 2007 cannot be achieved without maintaining full cooperation with the Hague tribunal.


The EU has repeatedly told Zagreb that its judiciary remains a problem area, which has to be solved before Croatia can claim a seat in Brussels.


Sanader knows that the Croatian public, most of whom see the Hague indictees as heroes, will more easily accept war crimes trials and possible jail sentences if the sessions are conducted at home, rather than The Netherlands.


“The executive cannot influence court rulings but the supreme court decision to annul the ruling in the Lora case came as a great relief,” a justice ministry official told IWPR, speaking anonymously.


“The ruling by the court in Split was scandalous and if the supreme court had not annulled it Croatia would have found itself in a very unpleasant situation,” the official added.


“There would have been great doubts about whether the Hague tribunal would be willing to relinquish any trials of indicted persons already in the Hague for trial in Croatia.”


The supreme court ruling was also convenient in its timing, as it followed the recent dramatic release of General Tihomir Blaskic, after the tribunal appeals chamber slashed his sentence from 45 to nine years.


Blaskic’s almost immediate return home [he had already been in jail for eight years] generated a wave of triumphalism and rejoicing that was known to have irritated the Dutch court.


The euphoria over Blaskic’s homecoming, which included the deputy prime minister, Jadranka Kosor, hugging and kissing him in front of the television cameras, went down badly there.


The supreme court ruling over the Lora case is likely to dispel that ill feeling in the Hague and ease concerns about the Croatian courts held by other international bodies, such as the OSCE, which criticised the Lora trial.


According to Petar Semneby, head of the OSCE mission in Croatia, the supreme court ruling marks a step forward for the Croatian courts. The decision was “in accord with the objections made by the OSCE mission while it monitored war crimes trials in Croatia”, he said.


In company with such organisations as the New York-based Human Rights Watch and the Croatian Helsinki Human Rights Committee, the OSCE viewed the Lora trial ruling as a biased verdict, following a trial in which the defendants had been shown open favour.


Zarko Puhovski, chair of the Croatian Helsinki Human Rights Committee, said, “The atmosphere at the trial in Split was biased, drawing huge objections from both the domestic and international public.” The supreme court decision, he predicted, would have “a calming effect” on the passions that were raised at the time.


Judge Lozina, not surprisingly, is less enthused by the decision to overturn the Lora trial verdict, claiming the Croatian courts had bowed to foreign political pressure.


“It is unacceptable for the OSCE to set the rules in Croatia,” he said. “The OSCE, international human rights protection institutions, the British Foreign Office and the US State Department forcibly brought about the supreme court ruling.”


He added, “I am proud of my work and am convinced I did my job professionally and properly.”


Judge Lozina criticised the Croatian justice minister, Vesna Skare-Ozbolt, claiming she had also exerted pressure on the courts through several critical public statements.


The justice ministry has declared it is determined to improve the quality of the Croatian judiciary, and ensure judges meet higher standards of expertise.


But the minister declined to comment on Lozina’s assertion that she had interfered in the handling of this sensitive case in any way.


“I am not in the habit of commenting on court rulings,” she said. “The supreme court is the highest court in the state and its decisions have to be absolutely respected. A new trial is coming in which I hope the full truth will be established.”


Drago Hedl is a regular IWPR contributor.


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