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

Glavas Case Raises Concerns About Croatian Judiciary

Despite allegations that he is pressuring witnesses, a Croatian politician indicted on war crimes charges is allowed to walk free.
By Drago Hedl
A court in Croatia has come under fire for allowing an indicted war crimes suspect to remain at large while his case is investigated, even though prosecutors have warned that this could jeopardise the fairness of the trial.



Branimir Glavas, a former general and member of parliament who has been one of the most powerful politicians in Croatia over the past 15 years, is accused of crimes against Serb civilians in Osijek, a city in eastern Slavonia near the border with Serbia, during the Croatian war in 1991.



The Zagreb District Court’s handling of the matter has been criticised as lax, and although this prosecution was generated locally, it has rung alarm bells among those worried about whether Croatia’s judiciary is ready to take over war crimes cases referred to it by the Hague tribunal, as part of the latter’s completion strategy.



Three months after the investigation into his case began, Glavas is still a free man, despite repeated requests from prosecutors to place him in custody. They have argued that there is sufficient evidence to suggest that the accused is impeding the investigation by intimidating witnesses into changing their testimony.



But the Zagreb judge leading the investigation, Zdenko Posavec, has turned down all requests for custody, saying there is no proof that Glavas was behind any threats.



Charges brought against Glavas after a year-long investigation conducted by leading crime scene expert Vladimir Faber include the murder of at least two Serb civilians and the unlawful detention and mistreatment of many others.



The investigation followed claims by Krunoslav Fehir, a former member of a Croatian unit under Glavas's command, that the general ordered gruesome extrajudicial executions of Serbs in Osijek.



Fehir alleged that Glavas ordered civilians to be imprisoned in his wartime headquarters, the National Defence Secretariat, where they were interrogated, tortured and finally killed. The alleged acts of torture included forcing acid from car batteries down their throats.



Fehir, who was only 16 at the time, admitted taking part in these crimes. He told Croatian investigators that one of the detainees, Cedomir Vuckovic, died shortly after he was forced to drink acid. He said that another Serb who had seen what happened, Djordje Petkovic, was executed on Glavas's order. Petkovic's body was never found.



Faber was dispatched from Zagreb to investigate allegations of war crimes in the city, because it had become apparent that the local police force would not be able to do so. The investigation was then shifted from Osijek to Zagreb for the sake of impartiality.



In April this year, Faber completed his investigation and brought charges against both Glavas and Fehir. A month later, Glavas was stripped of his parliamentary immunity so that the state prosecutor could start criminal proceedings. The case is now being overseen by an investigating judge.



Despite the serious nature of the accusations, there is no sign that Glavas will be arrested any time soon. Investigating judge Zdenko Posavec even allowed Glavas to travel to Germany this summer to watch the football World Cup.



According to police in Osijek, former soldiers who served under Glavas subsequently threatened some of the witnesses, leading the state prosecutor to demand his arrest – with no success.



“The case of Glavas and Fehir causes great concern and raises questions about Croatia's ability to conduct war crimes investigations efficiently,” said Mary Wyckoff, who heads the law department of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s mission in Zagreb. “This case shows how important it is to have adequate protection measures for witnesses who cooperate with the judiciary.”



Wyckoff said respecting the rule of law is central to any war crimes investigation, and that those working on them should get all the support they need to do their job well.



“The investigative procedure should strengthen the public's confidence in state institutions responsible for criminal investigations and proceedings. If this procedure is conducted properly, then its results – whatever they are - will be accepted as legitimate,” she explained.



Because of the way the whole case has been handled, many observers suggest it has descended into farce.



Several legal experts told IWPR it was “scandalous” that Glavas has been allowed to defend himself as a free man. They argue that there are grounds for immediate detention, specifically the gravity of the allegations and the indications that the accused has used his liberty to influence witnesses.



Several witnesses who were questioned by the investigating judge have already significantly altered the original testimonies they gave to police.



Glavas even threatened some witnesses in the presence of investigative judge Posavec.



Ladislav Bognar, a university professor who was in the area where Glavas was in charge at the time of the events of 1991, says he found himself in an alarming position when he gave a statement to the authorities.



“Since the things I was saying were not really in Glavas's favour, he attacked me right in front of judge Posavec. He called me a communist bastard and said I would get what I deserved,” said Bognar.



Glavas did not stop there – he launched his own web site on which he started posting witness testimonies. He stopped only when the investigating judge asked him to remove the material from the internet.



But he still used his website and media appearances to insult Faber, the investigating police officer, calling him “an immoral freak” and “human trash”. Nor did he spare other officials, calling State Prosecutor Mladen Bajic “rotten as a rotten tooth” and describing the judiciary as corrupt and politically influenced.



“I would much rather be tried in Banja Luka in Republika Srpska, because their judiciary is much more honest than Croatia's,” he said in one of his public outbursts.



The accused also lashed out at Croatian parliament speaker Vladimir Seks for dismissing his allegations that the case against him was a “politically assembled process”. Seks was a senior official in Osijek during the Croatian war, and Glavas has repeatedly tried to shift the blame to him.



Glavas denies all charges against him and claims he is a victim of a “witch-hunt”, for which he blames Croatian prime minister Ivo Sanader, who expelled him from his Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, party last year.



Asked to comment on why Glavas is still a free man, a high-ranking HDZ source said, “This in fact proves that politicians are not interfering in the work of the judiciary. We don't have to agree with their decisions, but as you can see, we don't try to change them, either.”



Drago Hedl is a regular IWPR contributor based in Croatia.