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

Is Croatia's Judiciary Ready for Its Big Challenge?

Upcoming trial of two ex-Croatian army generals charged with war crimes against Serbs seen by many as important test of reforms to the Croatian judiciary.
By Lisa Clifford
All eyes will be on Zagreb County Court next month when the first case transferred to the Croatian judiciary by the Hague tribunal comes to trial.

Croatian generals Rahim Ademi and Mirko Norac are charged with war crimes allegedly committed against Serbs in 1993.

Their trial is expected to generate great interest at home but also in Brussels where EU accession officials will be looking on with keen interest when the case begins on June 18. The judiciary has been Croatia’s biggest obstacle to its hopes to join the union in 2009, and observers say a well-run trial could demonstrate that legal reforms have firmly taken hold.

Ademi and Norac are indicted for persecutions on political, racial and religious grounds; murder; plunder of public or private property; and wanton destruction of cities, towns or villages.

The charges against them relate to an attack on Serb civilians in the so-called Medak Pocket, south of the city of Gospic in Croatia.

Ademi was acting commander of the Gospic military district and Norac was commander of the 9th Guards Motorised Brigade of the Croatian army during the military operation in the area. At the time, it was part of the Republika Srpska Krajina, a self-proclaimed Serbian entity in Croatia.

The indictment says the Medak Pocket was wiped out during the September 9-17 attack by Croat forces and the population of 400 Serbs forced to flee. Many Serbs were killed or wounded and their property stolen.

According to the indictment, Ademi and Norac, "planned, instigated, ordered, committed or otherwise aided and abetted in the planning, preparation or execution of persecutions of Serb civilians of the Medak Pocket on racial, political or religious grounds".

That includes the unlawful killing of Serb civilians and captured and wounded soldiers; cruel and inhumane treatment of local people, including stabbing, cutting of fingers, severe beatings with rifle butts, burning with cigarettes and mutilation.

Their case was transferred from The Hague to Croatia in 2005. It will be heard by judges in Zagreb County Court, one of four so-called special war crimes courts in Croatia, which under legislation adopted in 2003 is authorised to hear such war crimes cases. The other courts are in Osijek, Split and Rijeka.

Mary Wyckoff, head of the Rule of Law Unit at the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Croatia mission, said the Ademi/Norac case is in some ways more complicated than many of the war crimes cases that Croatia’s court system has heard so far.

“There is a long indictment with a large number of witnesses, many of whom are abroad,” said Wyckoff. “Unlike many cases here, there is also a lot of documentary evidence.”

She points out that a number of protected witnesses will testify at this trial and that maintaining witness confidentiality has been problematic in other proceedings in Croatia.

In 2005, Croatian parliamentary deputy Anto Djapic identified people cooperating with prosecutors investigating the former army general and mayor of Osijek Branmir Glavas during a press conference in Osijek.

“The effectiveness of measures to be put in place to maintain the confidentiality of witness identity will be an issue to watch in this case," said Wyckoff.

She points out, however, that while Ademi/Norac is a crucial case, "each war crimes case is important, particularly for the accused and the victims. It is important that cases prosecuted in the communities where the crimes occurred provide the same standard of justice".

Norac is already in prison in Croatia, serving a 12-year sentence imposed in 2003 for his role in the killing of ethnic Serb civilians in Gospic – crimes unrelated to the current case. He was the first Croatian army general to be found guilty of war crimes by a domestic court.

That verdict four years ago was greeted with anger by some Croatians who viewed Norac as a hero for his role in the country’s 1991-1995 war of independence. When the indictment against Norac was first announced in 2001, more than 100,000 demonstrators converged on Split. On the day the verdict was revealed, hundreds more bussed in from around the country lay down in the street outside the Rijeka courtroom.

Ranko Helebrant, deputy executive director of the Croatian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, doubts there will be any protests this time.

“People aren’t so interested anymore in speculation about whether they are heroes or war criminals,” said Helebrant. “The economic situation is not so good, and people are more interested in their daily lives than in political situations about Croatian generals.”

The Ademi and Norac trial is the only case currently before one of the specially-designated war crimes courts. Dozens of other war crimes trials are – and have been for many years – being heard locally in the communities where the incidents occurred.

Under pressure from the EU and other western countries that have made aid and investment contingent on robust war crimes prosecutions, observers say the quality of these trials has been better in recent years, but most agree there is still room for improvement.

One area of major concern has been the disproportionate number of cases brought against Serbs alleged to have committed crimes against Croats. The state prosecutor revealed earlier this month that around 98 per cent of the almost 3,700 war crimes proceedings initiated since 1991 involved Serbs.

“We had hundreds of war crimes cases, mostly not very well prepared or very well done, in many cases politically motivated, oriented towards the other side and not Croatian people,” said Ivo Josipovic, a law professor at the University of Zagreb.

"But in the last few years the situation is much better. The prosecution of war crimes is much more professional, following international standards."

Helebrant, whose organisation is monitoring 18 of the 23 war crimes trials currently underway in local courts, says that ethnic balance is shifting.

“In the cases we monitored, until 2001 there were almost no cases where the indicted person was Croat,” he said. “Now about 30 per cent of the indictments are against Croats who committed crimes against Serbs.”

The calibre and education of some Croatian judges - who in the past were politically appointed - has also been questioned.

“In the domestic courts the situation is mixed,” said Josipovic, who helped prepare training materials for an ICTY-supported education campaign for Croatian war crimes judges. “We have some excellent courts and excellent judges. Even in the same court we have some excellent judges and on the opposite side some very bad judges.”

Although the specially-designated war crimes courts have been quiet so far, observers are predicting a flurry of activity.

One of the most high profile trials will be the case against Glavas, who faces charges relating to two separate investigations into war crimes.

He was indicted last week along with six others for allegedly torturing and killing ten Serbs in Osijek. Glavas was also taken into custody in Zagreb in late 2006 on separate charges also relating to war crimes in the eastern city. Both cases are expected to be joined and sent to Zagreb for trial.

Two other cases soon destined for Croatian courts involve Serbs - Ernest Radjen and Dragan Vasiljkovic. A court in Greece has ordered Radjen’s extradition to Croatia where he is accused of commanding a military police unit that executed Croatian civilians in the village of Skabrnja near Zadar.

Vasiljkovic, a former Serb paramilitary leader known as Captain Dragan, is facing extradition from Australia. He is accused of commanding a unit of the Serbian Red Beret paramilitaries, who allegedly killed civilians, raped women and executed hospital patients.

And there are more trials to come.

Croatian prosecutors say they are seeking approximately 1,100 war crimes suspects, either under investigation or already indicted.

For the OSCE’s Wyckoff, cooperation between states of the former Yugoslavia is key to ending impunity and ensuring that those who committed serious crimes face trial. She says individual prosecutors are exchanging evidence and information, but points out the countries themselves have legal and constitutional impediments to the extradition of their citizens and other types of inter-state judicial cooperation.

“There is growing and good cooperation between individual prosecutors, but the legal regimes of these states as regards inter-state judicial cooperation remain significantly closed to each other,” said Wyckoff.

Lisa Clifford is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.

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