Glavas Escapes After Being Sentenced to Ten Years

Convicted Croat politician flees to Bosnia leaving political row in his wake.

Glavas Escapes After Being Sentenced to Ten Years

Convicted Croat politician flees to Bosnia leaving political row in his wake.

The main accused in Croatia’s highest-profile trial of crimes against ethnic Serbs has escaped to Bosnia after being found guilty, leaving Croat politicians squabbling over the verdict ahead of a local election this weekend.

Member of parliament Branimir Glavas – the first senior Croatian official to be convicted of war crimes – was sentenced in Zagreb County Court on May 8 to ten years in prison for the torture and murder of ethnic Serbs in the eastern city of Osijek in late 1991.

Glavas, the former commander of the town’s defence forces in the early months of Croatia's 1991 to 1995 war of independence, was not required to be in court when the verdict was read out.

On May 11, a special commission in Croatia’s parliament stripped Glavas of his parliamentary immunity “so he could be placed in custody”. However, he fled to neighbouring Bosnia before he could be detained.

Glavas's trial, which started in 2007 in Osijek, was later transferred to the Zagreb court.

Two investigations against him were brought together into a single indictment. In one case, victims were tortured and killed in the garage of an Osijek municipal building, while in the other eight men were gagged with duct tape and shot by the Drava river.

Five other people indicted on the same charges were also found guilty and sentenced to between five and seven years in prison last week.

Throughout the case, Glavas has denied any wrongdoing and staged several hunger strikes to protest his detention and trial. All the while, he denounced the charges against him as politically motivated and instigated by the ruling conservative Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, party.

Glavas, who was one of the founders of HDZ, was expelled in 2005 after clashing with party leader and Croatian prime minister Ivo Sanader over the latter’s pro-European policies. Following his expulsion, Glavas founded a successful regional party, the Croatian Democratic Alliance of Slavonia and Baranja, HDSSB.

In a heated atmosphere ahead of a key local election last weekend, Social Democratic Party president Zoran Milanovic accused the HDZ of having influenced the guilty verdict in the case, as a means of settling internal scores.

Sanader replied dismissively, saying that Milanovic wanted to “divert people’s attention” from political issues ahead of the election.

“Neither the HDZ, nor I, nor the government has influenced [the judiciary] and we never will, because that is impossible in Croatia,” said Sanader, citing judicial independence from the executive.

However, the prime minister did acknowledge that “[by] passing down a verdict [in the case of] Branimir Glavas…days before the [May 17] local elections, the judiciary has become involved in the electoral campaign”.

Senior Croatian judges reacted immediately, with the president of the Association of Croatian Judges, Djuro Sessa, replying, “The court and judges are not participating in the election campaign and they are not delivering verdicts in favour of or against a certain political option.

“Anyone who believes that verdicts are delivered to be in favour of some of the participants in the political race is wrong, and so is Prime Minister Sanader.”

President of the Supreme Court Branko Hrvatin was even sterner.

“The statement made by the prime minister in which he attempted to [connect] the court process and the timing of the ruling, and especially the severity of the ruling…with either the influence of a political party, or against any political party or executive power, I find is an inappropriate statement,” said Hrvatin in an official comment to media on May 11.

“With this statement, [Sanader] crossed a line which, given the judiciary and its sovereignty, cannot be crossed. Judges and their rulings are not in the service of anyone, nor do they represent anyone – they represent the law.”

Even Croatian president Stjepan Mesic chimed in, telling media that Sanader’s statement was “a bit too harsh when it comes to the judiciary”.

However, he added that the prime minister could not be said to have affected the judge’s decision as the verdict had already been passed.

The squabble only added to the furore over the verdict among conservatives and nationalists, a traditionally strong voting bloc.

Croats are only slowly coming to terms with their role in the crimes committed against ethnic Serbs, who are widely seen as the villains of the war, and politicians standing for elections often resort to populist and nationalist rhetoric mythologising the conflict to boost their votes.

Former interior minister Ivan Vekic, leader of an Osijek war veterans’ association, said veterans would organise demonstrations and engage in other forms of civil disobedience in protest at the verdict.

“Only Saint Ante will move us from that square, not the Croatian government or the police,” said Vekic of their plans to gather in front of the government building on Markov square, where protests are banned by law.

Meanwhile, Vladimir Sisljagic, president of Glavas’s HDSSB party, said on the day the verdict was issued that it was “an insult [to] and humiliation of all the Croatian veterans from Osijek, as well as all of [the rest of] Croatia.

“Today, those who gave their lives for the defence of Osijek die a second time.”

Sisljagic, who was the only person to vote against stripping Glavas of his immunity, said he now feared for the politician’s safety.

“Somebody could [assassinate] him, I do not exclude him being physically unsafe,” said Sisljagic, in a news conference.

After Croatian authorities issued first a local and then an international arrest warrant, police in Bosnia arrested Glavas on May 13 and handed him over to the Bosnian state prosecutor who remanded him in custody temporarily.

Glavas, who has Bosnian origins and was granted citizenship last year, cannot be sent to Croatia as the countries have no extradition agreement, and is therefore expected to be released soon.

But contrary to expectations that he would be released and allowed to live freely in Bosnia, on May 14, a Bosnian judge took the unexpected step of approving a request by the Bosnian chief prosecutor and ordering the politician to be placed in detention for 40 days, giving local authorities time to consider their legal options.

A spokeswoman at the Bosnian court said the decision was made due to the court’s assessment that Glavas’s application for Bosnian citizenship was a deliberate attempt to manipulate laws and escape Croatian justice.

This twist in the Glavas case could lead to a breakthrough, addressing a key shortcoming in the region’s justice system.

In a tacit agreement to avoid reopening wartime wounds, most ex-Yugoslav states have so far refrained from signing extradition agreements with each other, and several high-profile war crime convicts from Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia – as well as dozens of common criminals – have already used this legal loophole to avoid arrest and imprisonment.

But as these states move towards European Union membership, Brussels is increasingly looking at their readiness to bring war crimes suspects to justice as a gauge of their suitability to join the bloc, making high-profile cases such as Glavas’s a litmus test that Zagreb and Sarajevo cannot afford to fail.

Bosnian security minister Tarik Sadovic conceded this week that the case was not doing either Bosnia or Croatia any good.

“Such issues are unacceptable and Bosnia should resolve them through bilateral agreements with Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro,” Sadovic told Bosnian media.

In an interview with Bosnian daily Dnevni Avaz before his recent arrest, Glavas again protested his innocence and said the verdict was the result of a “political directive” from Sanader.

“In this staged political trial, the likes of which we did not see even in the darkest days of communism, my sentence was known in advance with no regard to the facts that told a different story,” said Glavas.

“Now that I am here as a Bosnian citizen, I have nothing against my case being transferred to Bosnia, that I may be tried by an independent Bosnian court.

“This is the best proof and confirmation that I am not trying to escape a fair trial, but that [a fair trial] was not a possibility for me in my country.”

Goran Jungvirth is an IWPR-trained journalist in Zagreb.
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