REGIONAL REPORT: Croatian Serb Prison Protest

Serb war crime suspects languishing in Croatian jails claim the judicial system discriminates against them

REGIONAL REPORT: Croatian Serb Prison Protest

Serb war crime suspects languishing in Croatian jails claim the judicial system discriminates against them

Saturday, 15 December, 2001

Ten Croatian Serbs held on war crimes charges in local jails went on hunger strike for a second time last week over claims that their human rights were being violated.

The prisoners, who claim in a letter sent to the prison authorities that the judicial system has failed the Serbs, point to being discriminated against by being held without trial in an Osijek jail for more than a year. There have been no developments in their cases during their time in custody.

This same group of Serbs also went on hunger strike in July. Their protest provoked severe criticism of authorities by politicians in Yugoslavia and local Serb political parties (see Tribunal Update No. 229).

Critics of the government accused Prime Minister Ivica Racan of arresting the men to calm right-wing outrage after the spring arrests of General Mirko Norac and several other Croatian army officers. Norac and his officers are accused of war crimes against Serb civilians in Gospic in 1991.

Many local Serbs are convinced the authorities are using local Serbs as pawns in a cynical political game. "Whenever the Croatian Right raise their voice against cooperation with The Hague and the arrest of some Croat soldier, the authorities immediately arrest some Serb for balance sake," said one representative of the Serbian minority in Podunavlje.

They cite as an example the case of Bosko Jancic, a Serb from Baranja, a Serb-run province peacefully reintegrated into the country in 1998, whose recent arrest coincided with that of a group of Croatian soldiers in Virovitica and Bjelovar, accused of committing war crimes in the towns in 1991.

The timing of Jancic's arrest was further brought into question due to the sizeable gap between his indictment and his detention - the arrest warrant was issued back in 1992, charging him with ordering indiscriminate shelling of Osijek, killing civilians and causing large material damage. Until he was taken into custody, the accused was living openly, carrying out official, state duties.

After Baranja was retintegrated in 1998, the Croatian authorities appointed Jancic assistant governor of the region. He was also got a job as senior manager at the Belje Agricultural Cooperative and received a privileged pension as a former member of the Croatian parliament, to which he was elected in the country's first multi-party elections in 1990.

"I do not understand how a person who has lived without problems for four years in the Croatian state is all of a sudden arrested on a warrant from 1992," said Jancic's lawyer, Jasmina Bilos.

Jancic's guilt has yet to be established, but the story of his arrest is disturbing. During his two-week detention, not a single official - not even the investigating judge - interrogated him, Jancic told IWPR. On November 20, the supreme court annulled the detention order issued by Osijek district court, and he was released. The court has refused to comment on the case.

Meanwhile, one of the closest associates of former president Franjo Tudjman has spoken in Jancic's defence. "I can only speak well of Jancic as a person, businessman and former associate," said Branimir Glavas, the long-standing governor of Baranja-Osijek, whom Jancic served as assistant governor. Glavas believes Jancic "was never involved in politics" during the war, since he "is a businessman by vocation".

Glavas' backing is telling as he commanded the defence of Osijek, the town Jancic allegedly ordered shelled. If he can call Jancic's treatment "unfair", then Serb protests against the conduct of the Croatian judicial authorities cannot be easily dismissed as partisan.

The Serb prisoners claim they are subject to unfair treatment especially when compared to local Croats, which are, they say, granted provisional release even after confessing in court to killing Serbs. Some have even been amnestied. Antun Gudelj, who murdered Osijek police chief Josip Reihl Kir and two more people, one of them was Serb, was released by the municipal court in Osijek in 1996.

This second hunger strike is raising deep questions about the ability and willingness of Croatia's judiciary to handle war crimes cases fairly, just as the war crime tribunal is pushing to see more cases handled by local authorities.

Drago Hedl is IWPR's project editor in Croatia.

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