Occupied property, along with destroyed property and cancelled tenancy rights over socially-owned apartments, is the main impediment to the return of displaced Serbs to their homes in Croatia. In a UNHCR-sponsored survey conducted among refugees from Croatia currently residing in Serbia and Montenegro, 90 percent of the respondents said that they faced problems repossessing their property in Croatia.24 The authorities at different levels of government in Croatia—central, county, and local—have pursued policies that severely limit the ability of Serb returnees to reoccupy their pre-war houses and apartments.
The majority of returnees in Croatia interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that other members of their families would return to Croatia if they could get a job and repossess their homes. A woman in Korenica, who has been unable to repossess her family home since 1997, said that her two sons would return from Serbia and Republika Srpska, because “they don’t have a job there either”;25 a returnee to Knin stated that his brother would like to return from Serbia, but it was impossible because his house near Knin was devastated;26 an elderly woman from a village near Knin said that her son, daughter-in-law, and three grandchildren would immediately return from Serbia if their house were vacated.27
In late 2001 and early 2002 the government repeatedly stated that it would facilitate the repossession of all Serb houses by the end of 2002.28 The Action Plan for implementation of repossession of property by the end of 2002, adopted by the Croatian government in December 2001, also included this commitment.29 As the deadline approached, it became increasingly clear that the stated goal would not be achieved. Government officials started to talk in mid-2002 about the end of the year as a deadline for issuance of administrative decisions on return of property, rather than for the actual physical repossession of property by the owners. Major legislative changes in July 2002 made this new and less ambitious commitment explicit, stating that by the end of 2002 the government would issue decisions on return of property. If by that time the applying owner were not to physically repossess the property, the law obligates the government to pay him or her an unspecified compensation, at an unspecified time.30 As this report went to press in August 2003, even this latest promise remained unfulfilled. The following discussion details the laws, policies, and practices that have for years impeded returnees from repossessing their property.
Croatian Serbs left their properties in two large waves during the first half of the 1990s. On the eve of the war and in its early days in 1991, many Serbs left properties located in government-controlled territory. Those who lived in the Serb-controlled parts fled four years later, in 1995, as a result of the Croatian army offensives “Flash” and “Storm,” aimed at regaining control of Serb-held lands in Western Slavonia and Krajina.31
In September 1995, the Croatian government adopted the 1995 Law on Temporary Takeover and Administration Of Specified Property (1995 Law on Temporary Takeover), pertaining to the status of abandoned property. The law provided that the Republic of Croatia would administer the abandoned property.32 Commissions for temporary takeover and administration of property, at municipal and town level, could allocate the property to various categories of people: refugees and displaced persons; returnees; war invalids; families of perished and missing Croatian soldiers; and, “other citizens who perform activities necessary for the security, reconstruction and development of the previously occupied territory.”33
A year after the enactment of the 1995 Law on Temporary Takeover, parliament passed the Law on Areas of Special State Concern, which specifically dealt with the areas previously controlled by the Serb rebels, where most of the Serb-owned property is located. The new law reiterated the authority of the state to allocate abandoned private property to refugees and certain other groups.34 The 1995 Law on Temporary Takeover was the legal basis for allocation of a significant majority of Serb properties to temporary occupants.35
Croatian law has persistently favored those who were allocated abandoned Serb homes over their returning owners. The 1995 Law on Temporary Takeover provided that legal occupants could be evicted from Serb houses only if the local authorities provided adequate alternative accommodation for them, in Croatia, often referred to as “housing care.”36 In a decision rendered in September 1997, the Constitutional Court of Croatia struck down this provision as unconstitutional; the Court observed that the provision contained no deadline for the reinstatement of the owner, which could prevent him from exercising his ownership rights protected by article 48(1) of the Croatian constitution.37 In July 1998, parliament repealed the 1995 Law on Temporary Takeover38 but in the same month enacted the Program for Return and Housing Care of Expelled Persons, Refugees, and Displaced Persons (1998 Program for Return),39 containing an identical provision that made temporary occupants safe from eviction as long as a local housing commission failed to provide alternative accommodation for them.40 Moreover, the Program limited alternative accommodation to houses or apartments owned by the State,41 and it stopped short of defining “adequate” alternative accommodation, which temporary occupants would have no right to reject. In the same vein, the 1998 Program for Return prohibited temporary occupants from inhabiting more than one home, but gave no guidelines on what constituted proscribed “multiple occupancy.”42 As is detailed in this report, the local housing commissions and courts interpreted these vague laws in a manner most prejudicial to the interests of returning refugees.
In July 2002, the Croatian parliament adopted amendments to the Law on Areas of Special State Concern, repealing the key provisions of the 1998 Program for Return and making some progress toward securing returnees’ property rights.43 The amendments disbanded the inefficient local housing commissions and transferred decision-making from the local level to the central government.44 Instead of the housing commissions, now the state prosecutor has responsibility for filing lawsuits against temporary users who refuse to vacate occupied property.45 Moreover, the property owner is, for the first time in return-related laws, authorized to bring a lawsuit in order to protect his ownership rights.46 The amendments also introduced the concept of temporary alternative accommodation for temporary occupants for whom the authorities are unable to provide more permanent accommodation.”47 Finally, the July 2002 amendments provided that owners or protected renters of vacated and inhabitable property in the territory of the former Yugoslavia are not entitled to housing care in Croatia.48 These new provisions should provide a basis to accelerate evictions from occupied houses.
Nonetheless, the July 2002 amendments failed to address a number of other issues that have had a direct impact on the repossession of property: the financial ability of the temporary occupant to rent alternative accommodation; the temporary occupancy of several homes by members of a family that lived together before the war; temporary occupants’ occasional use of property; temporary occupants’ refusal to use properties jointly with the owner; and, deadlines by which the government should provide alternative accommodation to temporary owners and free the properties for the owners. In addition, the law in itself is not a guarantee that the agencies in charge of implementing it—the Ministry for Public Works, Construction and Reconstruction, the State Prosecutor, and the courts—will implement it with the requisite determination that has been all but completely absent in the previous period. As is detailed below, the first year of the new law’s implementation has seen no improvement in the repossession of property.
Impediments to Repossession of Property
Municipal housing commissions, established under the 1995 Law on Temporary Takeover,49 assigned approximately 18,500 abandoned properties to temporary occupants between 1995 and 1998, when the Croatian parliament repealed the law.50 Virtually any Croat could get a decision authorizing use of abandoned property. Years later, thousands of Serb properties remain occupied by Croat refugees from Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia and Montenegro, Croats displaced from other parts of Croatia during the war, and Croats who had housing elsewhere in Croatia but were given abandoned Serb property under the law’s catch-all rubric of “other citizens who perform [necessary] activities.” In July 2003, according to the government, 5,200 Serb properties that had been allocated by virtue of the 1995 Law on Temporary Takeover were still occupied.51
Croatian law roughly divides those currently living in Serb houses in two groups: lawful temporary occupants entitled to alternative accommodation prior to eviction, and unlawful temporary occupants who do not enjoy this right. The government has considered up to 15 percent of the temporary occupancies cases of either illegal (unauthorized) occupancy52 or “multiple occupancy,” the latter being the cases in which the government has determined that the occupants possess other accommodations to which they could move.53 Consideration of only those cases in which the temporary occupancy was authorized by the government in the first place certainly understates the problem of illegal occupancy, since hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Serb-owned houses were occupied without a government decision ever authorizing that use. In addition, hundreds of cases are not considered cases of multiple or unlawful occupancy of Serb property, although any reasonable standard should warrant such determination. The following discussion describes these various categories of current occupants of Serb homes and in each case details the different ways in which Croatian law has been manipulated to bar repossession of Serb homes.
Croatian law has in the postwar period consistently maintained the right of lawful temporary occupants to receive government-provided alternative accommodation prior to eviction. This right has proved a significant obstacle to returnees’ repossession of their property. The 1998 Program for Return did not set forth any time limit within which the local housing commissions had to find alternative accommodations for a temporary occupant. In practice, housing commissions simply failed to offer such accommodation or to force temporary occupants to accept it when they did, and temporary occupants continued to occupy Serb property indefinitely. The owners had no rights under the law to initiate proceedings against the housing commissions for failing to offer alternative accommodation to temporary occupants. Although the July 2002 legal reform shifted responsibility for identifying alternative accommodation to the Ministry for Public Works, Reconstruction and Construction/Directorate for Expellees, Returnees and Refugees (usually referred to as “ODPR”), efforts to relocate temporary occupants have not improved significantly.
During the period that local housing commissions had responsibility for relocating temporary occupants, they often explained their failure by arguing that alternative housing was lacking. But, as a general rule, the commissions defined alternative accommodation very narrowly and neglected creative options to house temporary occupants. Temporary occupants could in some cases, for example, temporarily share property with Serb owners, at least in the cases in which the house comprises two or more floors or flats. In other cases, temporary occupants could be required to move into vacant houses or apartments in neighboring communities. The housing commissions did not generally try these options, nor did the central government ever suggest them as a matter of policy.
The 1998 Program for Return failed to address situations where houses were large enough to accommodate both the owner and the temporary occupant, and the owner wished to share the house until such time as proper alternative accommodation was found for the occupant. This led to absurd situations in which the temporary occupant used only one part of a spacious house, and the owner, unable to move into the remaining part, lived elsewhere with friends and relatives, paid rent as a tenant, or lived in a collective center (a government-built settlement consisting of prefabricated huts).
In a case registered by the Croatian Ombudsman, the housing commission in Hrvatska Kostajnica refused to allow a returnee, identified by the Ombudsman as “V.K.,” to use an uninhabited floor of his own house in the town. In a letter to the Ombudsman, the commission wrote that the owner could not use any part of the house as long as the temporary user was on the property. Also, according to the commission, since the temporary user had a small child, “it would not be desirable that V.K. should disturb the family with respect to the restitution of the property.”54
In June 2002, Human Right Watch observed the court proceedings on repossession of another property, in which the defendants—a Bosnian Croat wife and her Muslim husband, occupants of a three-story Serb house in Karlovac—explained that they opposed sharing the house temporarily with the owner because, in the husband’s words, “He cannot live with us. We were at war with such like him for four years.” The owner, Dusan Vilenica, returned to Karlovac in 1998 and has been unable to reoccupy the house or move into its uninhabited parts since.
The housing commissions and courts were equally accommodating of temporary occupants unwilling to move to a neighboring community. In fact, all housing commissions and courts interpreted the law as if the vacant or illegally occupied property in other municipalities did not constitute alternative accommodation, and therefore they refused to order the temporary occupant to move there.
There was nothing in the law that prevented housing commissions from providing alternative accommodation in areas outside the municipality in which temporary occupants were currently living. If alternative accommodation in the municipality was lacking, the 1998 Program for Return obligated housing commissions to inform the government’s agencies for displaced persons and refugees of this fact.55 The agencies might have taken this cue to start looking into possibilities for accommodation in other parts of Croatia. Housing commissions themselves could have established data-exchange mechanisms, and municipalities with surpluses in housing could have offered space to municipalities lacking sufficient housing.
These arrangements were never realized in practice. Temporary occupants were usually unwilling to leave the areas they had chosen as their new place of residence, and the authorities made no attempt to relocate them. For example, during Human Rights Watch’s visit to the area in 2001, a number of municipality-owned apartments in Udbina were vacant.56 This housing space could have been used as alternative accommodation for temporary occupants in nearby Korenica, where housing space was lacking. A member of the then-housing commission in Korenica told Human Rights Watch in June 2002 that “we can suggest to the temporary occupants to move into those apartments, but they don’t want to go there. And they have the final word.”57 This official acknowledged that the housing commissions in Korenica and Udbina did not have a mechanism for information exchange, so the commission in Korenica did not even know which apartments in Udbina were empty.
In another characteristic case, a married Bosnian Croat couple living in the village of Orlic, near Knin, told Human Rights Watch that they did not want to vacate the Serb house they were occupying because the house offered as alternative accommodation to them and to the family of their daughter was several miles further away from Knin. The family also found it unacceptable that the offered house did not have two separate apartments.58
As is evident from the cases detailed above, the housing commissions persistently failed to confront temporary occupants over their unrealistically high standards for “adequate” alternative accommodations. In one striking case, the temporary occupant of the house of Petar Cubrilo, returnee to Gracac, rejected three offers for alternative accommodation. On the second occasion, in July 2001, she objected that two faucets, the shower, and a window frame were not in a state she found satisfactory. After five years of waiting, Petar Cubrilo finally repossessed his house in February 2002.59
In February 2001, the government adopted a decree that for the first time stipulated that a person who rejects an offer of adequate housing care should lose any right to such assistance.60 In practice, however, temporary occupants still continued to decide whether the accommodation offered to them was “adequate.” At a meeting of the Slunj town council in May 2002, during which the case of Tomislav Turek was discussed,61 the president of the housing commission told the councilmen: “I asked Turek to say what it is that he wants, so that we can resolve the issue. He does not want alternative accommodation such as an apartment, but a house with a piece of land. I am not sure that we can offer something to him at this stage.”62
The July 2002 amendments to the Law on Areas of Special State Concern held out the promise that some of the problems relating to relocating temporary occupants would be addressed. Unfortunately, progress in the first year of implementation of the new law has been disappointing.
The amendments were silent on the joint use of houses and the provision of alternative accommodation in other areas, leaving to the implementing authorities—now the Ministry for Public Works in lieu of the housing commissions—the discretion to promote joint use or relocation to alternative accommodation in other areas. As of mid-2003, however, little had been done to pursue these more expansive approaches to alternative accommodation.
The July 2002 amendments to the Law on Areas of Special State Concern also stipulated that a temporary occupant who rejects the permanent housing care or the temporary accommodation offered to him forfeits the right to housing care.63 A year after the adoption of the amendments, nothing suggests that the authorities enforce this provision and initiate eviction procedures against uncooperative beneficiaries. The temporary occupants do not see the threat of losing the entitlement to alternative accommodation as serious.64 One temporary occupant told Human Rights Watch as a matter of course that he had refused to move from a comfortable Serb house in the vicinity of Karlovac to the [wooden hut] settlement “Gaza” in the town.65 In addition, the process in which the authorities offer alternative accommodation to temporary occupants lacks transparency, because regional offices of the Ministry for Public Works, Reconstruction and Construction/ODPR often offer the accommodation only verbally.66 The property owners, as well as the international agencies and Croatian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) monitoring the repossession of properties, cannot effectively track down such offers and react when the authorities fail to evict the obstructionist occupants.
Finding alternative accommodation for temporary occupants and reinstating returning owners in their property boils down to a question of political will on the part of the responsible authorities. In Eastern Slavonia—where the temporary occupants were Serbs and the displaced were Croats—the local housing commissions and courts have evicted thousands of Serbs from Croat properties since 1998. Many of those evicted moved to other properties, where they paid rents as tenants or shared housing space with friends and relatives, lived in collective centers, or bought a house or an apartment.67 The practice in Eastern Slavonia shows that it is entirely possible to return occupied properties to their owners, when there is the requisite political will.
Although, as discussed above, provision of alternative accommodation to lawful occupants of Serb homes has proven a significant impediment to Serb return, repossession of a home unlawfully occupied has also been difficult. As detailed in this section, three types of unlawful occupancy have prevented Serb owners from repossessing their properties since the end of the war: use of property without authorization; use of property for purposes other than housing; and, multiple occupancy. Croatian legislation has failed to recognize as unlawful some other circumstances in which the temporary occupant could himself obtain alternative accommodation. Human Rights Watch believes that reasonableness and the practice in neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina, which faces property problems similar to Croatia’s, mandate considering such cases as constituting unlawful occupancy akin to multiple occupancy. The following discussion details the ways in which Croatian laws and practice have barred Serb returnees from repossessing their homes from unlawful occupants and others who should have no right to alternative accommodation prior to eviction.
There are many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of cases of individuals who occupy Serb property although they never received a decision authorizing temporary use.68 These are clear cases of illegal occupancy. Under Croatian law, local housing commissions—until August 2002 the main agency for implementation of laws relating to abandoned property—were under a duty to issue eviction orders promptly in such cases.69 If users refused to obey and the case reached the court, the court was under an obligation to rule in a shortened procedure and the appeal could not suspend the execution of the decision.70 In spite of these provisions, however, in the period between June and December 2001 the number of cases identified by the government as unauthorized use of property decreased by only twelve percent, from 803 to 705.71 Lack of political will accounted for the slow resolution of a problem that was uncontroversial from the legal perspective.
The July 2002 legislation disbanded the local housing commissions and vested the authority to seek evictions with regional ODPRs and state prosecutors. These have not proved to be more effective in evicting illegal occupants than the housing commissions had been (see Eviction Procedures, below). In addition, the state prosecutors do not apply the July 2002 law outside the areas of the special state concern, although in these areas there are also Serb houses illegally occupied by third persons.72 In such cases, owners can only initiate private lawsuits, which are usually expensive and result in the case dragging before the court for many years.
The 1998 Program for Return explicitly stipulated that “any case of illegal use, […] when the [occupant] uses the object for any other purpose than principle accommodation of his/her family, shall be promptly eliminated.”73 There have been, however, numerous cases in which temporary occupants used properties for business or other purposes, and yet the authorities have failed to evict them.
In such cases, the temporary occupants are typically using Serb houses, not to resolve a genuine housing problem, but rather for business operations. A number of temporary occupants, most of whom had settled from other parts of Croatia, have been using Serb houses as restaurants or motels for years. The use of Serb houses for business purposes is particularly striking along the road connecting the capital Zagreb with the Dalmatian coast. This is the main route for hundreds of thousands of tourists who visit Croatia during the summer.
The town of Korenica is located on this road, ten miles from the national park Plitvice Lakes, another tourist attraction. An internal working paper by the OSCE office in Korenica, dated from August 2001, identified eight cases in which temporary occupants used private houses of ethnic Serb returnees for purposes other than accommodation: for example, the house of Milan Zigic was a café; the house of Neven Jerkovic was transformed into a church; the house of Jovan Rapaic became a pizzeria and video store; and the house of Branko Funduk was used as an office for the private building company “Ante-Gradnja.” The OSCE document identified an additional six cases in which the persons allocated abandoned houses kept these empty. A year later, only the six empty houses had been repossessed by their owners.74 The remaining cases, in which the properties were used as business premises, were still pending.75 As of June 2003, the only change consisted in Neven Jerkovic having sold his house to the state-run Agency for the Mediation in the Sale of Immovable Properties (Agencija za pravni promet i posredovanje nekretninama-APN).76
In fact, Human Rights Watch did not learn of a single case, out of dozens documented throughout Croatia, in which property used for business purposes had been returned to the lawful owner.
A prominent illustrative case is that of Ivan Kovac, a Bosnian-born Croat who lived as an immigrant in Australia, until he came to Croatia in 1995. Since 1997, Kovac has run a restaurant in Gracac in a home owned by Danilo Stanic, a Serb. Stanic and his wife returned to Gracac in 1998, but the local housing commission ignored their repeated requests that the commission evict Kovac.77 In July 2002, pursuant to Stanic’s private lawsuit, Gracac municipal court ordered that Kovac vacate the part of the house used as a restaurant,78 but the restaurant continued operating as of June 2003, pending a court decision on Kovac’s appeal.79
Multiple Occupancy and Other Circumstances that Should be Considered Unlawful
The 1998 Program for Return, which until July 2002 was the main legal source for repossession of the occupied property, stated that multiple occupancy was contrary to the law, but it gave no guidelines on what constituted multiple occupancy.80
In neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina, the housing laws imposed by the Office of the High Representative (OHR) defined several categories of multiple occupants, including a temporary user (of a home of a displaced person or a refugee) who can safely repossess a livable house or apartment in which he lived, without owning it, before the war; or a temporary user who owns another livable home occupied by him or a member of his original household to which they could return; a temporary user whose parents or members of household occupy another housing unit in the same city, municipality, or place; and, a person who rejects alternative accommodation or aid in reconstruction of his home, offered by the authorities.81
In Croatia, the housing commissions and courts interpreted the concept of multiple occupancy in the narrowest sense, as a situation in which the temporary occupant, in addition to occupying a home of a refugee or a displaced person, owns another livable house or an apartment, most frequently one that has been reconstructed with state funds. According to the Croatian authorities, temporary occupants who use homes only periodically while regularly residing elsewhere are not considered multiple occupants. Moreover, those who before the war lived as one family in a single household and then moved into two or more Serb houses are not considered multiple occupants, as long as different members of the same family received certificates authorizing them to use different houses. Similarly, those who are determined to be financially or otherwise able to make other alternative housing arrangements are entitled to continuously occupy another person’s house. Under the July 2002 amendments to the Law on Areas of Special State Concern all of these situations remain legal, with the temporary occupants entitled to housing care or temporary alternative accommodation before they will be expected to vacate a Serb-owned house. The only improvement the law brings is in regards to those who repossessed their houses or apartments in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but who continue to live in a Serb house in Croatia: they are now considered multiple occupants. The following discussion describes how the Croatian government’s continued failure to recognize these various forms of “multiple occupancy” disadvantages Serb returnees in their efforts to repossess their property.
The 1998 Program for Return did not provide for eviction of temporary occupants who used the property assigned to them only periodically. Some temporary occupants of Serb homes in fact keep the house empty, while living and working elsewhere. Housing commissions, relying on the 1998 Program for Return, failed to take any action against these occupants. The July 2002 amendments to the law on areas of special state concern do not address the issue.
In a typical case, returnee Simeuna Trisic (age 76) from the village of Orlic, near Knin, could not enter her property from 1997 to 2002, although the supposed temporary occupants, a Bosnian Croat family, had since late 2000 been reportedly spending most of their time abroad.82 Trisic returned to her apartment only in January 2002, after the Croat family definitively left the country.83
Another form of multiple occupancy considered legal in Croatia involves cases of young men and women who lived with their parents before the war, moved into Serb houses during or after the war, and continue to live in them. In numerous cases these persons have now established their own families and refuse to vacate the Serb property they currently occupy.
Housing commissions failed to issue eviction orders in any such cases. The 2001 Annual Report of the Croatian Ombudsman reported a case from Petrinja where, in a letter to the Ombudsman, the housing commission conceded that the temporary occupant lived in his parents’ house before the war, but “he has his own family now, with four members,” and therefore could not be evicted before the authorities provided alternative housing for him.84
Human Rights Watch learned about a number of cases in which an extended Croat family occupied two or more Serb houses. In one such case, in 1995, the family of Bosnian Croat Bozo Juko was allocated a Serb house of 140 square meters in Licko Petrovo Selo. His son and two daughters have since married, and the Korenica housing commission allocated one Serb house to each of them, each a minimum 100 square meters in size.85 Bozo Juko and each of his children are still entitled to alternative accommodation and the Serb owners of the four homes this extended family occupies are unable to repossess their homes until they get it.86
Formally, such cases do not constitute multiple occupancy, because different persons are designated as occupants of different housing units. Even where the family split resulted in occupation of several large houses—as in the example of Bozo Juko—the housing commissions had no legal ground to evict the temporary occupants without first providing them with alternative accommodation. The Ministry for Public Works, Reconstruction and Construction, in charge of implementation of the housing legislation after the July 2002 amendments, faces the same constraint.
More than half the temporary occupants of Serb property are Bosnian Croats who came to Croatia as refugees during the war.87 A significant proportion of them still possess property in Bosnia; many others sold property in Bosnia, the proceeds of which could finance acquisition of property or a tenancy in Croatia.
In June 2001, after reviewing the status of occupied properties in the country, the Croatian government announced for the first time that “families who in B[osnia]-H[erzegovina] received reconstruction or repossessed property shall not be beneficiaries of the provision to alternative accommodation.”88 The Action Plan for Implementation of Repossession of Property by the End of 2002, which the cabinet adopted in December 2001, stipulated that Bosnian Croats who had vacant property in Bosnia should not retain the right to housing in Croatia.89 Nonetheless, throughout this period there was no law stipulating that temporary occupants who repossessed property in Bosnia were multiple occupants. On the contrary, the Law on Areas of Special State Concern stipulated that the government had to provide for “housing care” for all temporary occupants except those who owned another apartment or family house in Croatia.90 Implicitly, the law provided that if a temporary occupant owned a house abroad, he was nonetheless entitled to housing care prior to eviction. In practice, housing commissions and courts did not consider such cases multiple occupancy.
In July 2002, the amended Law on Areas of Special State Concern finally spelled out that these cases do constitute illegal multiple occupancy. The law specifies that the government does not have to provide alternative housing for those temporary occupants of property who are owners or protected renters of a vacated and inhabitable house or apartment in the territory of the former Yugoslavia, or who sold or gave away the house or the apartment after October 1991.91 Many Croats from Bosnia and Herzegovina or Serbia and Montenegro are unlikely to return to live in these countries, but they could rent or sell their properties there and use the funds to provide for accommodation in Croatia.
Although this amendment to the Law on Areas of Special State Concern represents a welcome step, its impact has been very limited. During a June 2003 follow-up mission in Croatia, Human Rights Watch heard of only seven cases, all in the town of Vojnic, in which the regional office of the Ministry for Public Works, Reconstruction and Construction/ODPR notified temporary occupants that they should vacate the house because they have livable properties in Bosnia and Herzegovina.92 Elsewhere, the temporary occupants who possess such properties in Bosnia or have sold them continue to freely occupy Serb houses in Croatia.93
Since the amendment came into force, temporary occupants who have applied for housing care with the regional ODPR offices have been required to enclose declarations, made under penalty before a notary public, that they do not own a house or an apartment and have not sold any since October 1991.94 The Ministry has yet to effectively check the statements declaring the lack of housing in other parts of the former Yugoslavia, and to take action upon obtaining any such information. In some cases in the past OSCE offices in Croatia have informally obtained pertinent information from OSCE offices in Bosnia, but local Croatian authorities have refused to accept it.95 In December 2002, the Bosnian Ministry for Human Rights and Refugees agreed to submit to the Croatian Ministry for Public Works, Reconstruction and Construction/ODPR information on reconstructed properties in Bosnia; the Bosnian ministry was not, however, in possession of a complete database on other properties repossessed by owners.96 The Housing Verification and Monitoring unit (HVM) in Bosnia and Herzegovina has also submitted information about repossessed Bosnian properties to the Croatian Ministry for Public Works, Construction and Reconstruction/ODPR, which it could use to identify illegal multiple occupants.97 A spokesperson for the Croatian Ministry for Public Works, Construction and Reconstruction told Human Rights Watch that the HVM findings require additional verification by the Bosnian Ministry for Human Rights and Refugees, in order to serve as a piece of information potentially relevant and admissible in court. The spokesperson explained that eviction for those with property in Bosnia had been slow in coming because of the time-consuming verification procedure and the lack of a centralized database at the Bosnian Ministry for Human Rights and Refugees.98
The Croatian government’s exclusive reliance on the Bosnian Ministry for Human Rights and Refugees is unjustified. The Ministry for Public Works, Reconstruction and Construction/ODPR should give due consideration to OSCE and HVM data, along with information from the housing commissions in Bosnia and Herzegovina, or the local land-registry offices. Some owners of occupied property have also provided photos showing that the occupant’s house in Bosnia is inhabitable. The government should in principle consider all such evidence as having considerable—even if rebuttable—probative value.99
Like those who have sold property in Bosnia, some temporary occupants have the financial means and ability to rent or buy accommodation/housing elsewhere, but they continue to occupy Serb houses instead. At the same time, the Serb owners—most of whom are impoverished—pay rent to live in someone else’s house or apartment, or live in one of the several collective centers for returnees in Croatia. Neither the 1998 Program for Return nor the amended Law on Areas of Special State Concern addresses such cases. As with other lawful temporary occupants, those who could afford to provide for their own alternative housing are nonetheless entitled to receive that assistance from the state before vacating the home they occupy. The Croatian authorities’ failure to consider such cases unlawful thus impedes Serb repossession of their homes.
Under the 1998 Program for Return, returning property owners could apply to local housing commissions for reinstatement of their property, and the housing commissions were authorized to issue decisions canceling earlier decisions on allocation of abandoned property.100 As previously noted, however, legal temporary occupants were not required to vacate the property until the housing commissions provided them with alternative accommodation.101 Once the commission found such accommodation, it was supposed to inform the temporary occupants of the deadline by which they would be required to vacate the property. If the temporary occupants failed to vacate by the deadline date, according to the law, the housing commission was duty bound to file a lawsuit for eviction within seven days.
The 1998 Program for Return specified further that occupants using property in breach of the law did not enjoy the right to alternative accommodation.102 Within fifteen days after finding out about a case of illegal or multiple occupancy, the housing commissions were obliged to order eviction from the property. If the user refused to obey, the housing commission had a duty to file a lawsuit before the municipal court, although the law set no deadline by which such cases should be filed.103
In either case, when the municipal court received the lawsuit it was supposed to rule in a shortened procedure; the law provided that the decision would become effective immediately, and any appeal would not suspend the execution.104 The housing commission had to request the execution from the court.105
Although the eviction procedure specified or established in the July 2002 amendments to the Law on Areas of Special State Concern introduces some new actors in the eviction process—state prosecutors and the Ministry for Public Works, Reconstruction and Construction/Directorate for Expellees, Returnees and Refugees (ODPR)—the basic procedure remains unchanged. Once the Ministry for Public Works, Reconstruction and Construction/ODPR provides alternative accommodation, the temporary occupant has to vacate the property within fifteen or ninety days, depending on the type of alternative accommodation arrangement. If the temporary occupant fails to vacate, the state prosecutor has to file a lawsuit for eviction within fifteen days. The court has an obligation to rule in a shortened procedure.106 However, the amended Law on Areas of Special State Concern contains no deadline by which the government should provide housing care or temporary accommodation to temporary owners. This means that to trigger the eviction procedures may again take months, if not years.
The law, as amended in July 2002 provides further that illegal occupants, who are not entitled to alternative accommodation, should be sued within sixty days after the state prosecutor receives relevant documentation from the Ministry for Public Works, Reconstruction and Construction/ODPR. The deadline for bringing a lawsuit against a multiple occupant (whose property has been reconstructed by state funds) is thirty days. Again, the court procedure is shortened.107
In the four years during which the Program for Return governed repossession procedures (1998-2002), few evictions were effected. A May 2002 report by the OSCE mission in Croatia notes that “in the majority of cases where occupants have disobeyed administrative orders to vacate occupied properties, the authorities have not sought eviction orders in court.”108 In the sixteen municipalities of Western Slavonia, for example between 1998 and September 2001, local housing commissions allegedly took an eviction case to court on only one occasion.109 Likewise in Zadar, as of July 2001, the housing commission had identified ninety-four cases of illegal occupancy, but it had filed only eleven cases with Zadar’s municipal court.110
In the few cases that went to court on the basis of the Program of Return and yielded an eviction order, the housing commission often postponed indefinitely the next step of requesting that the court enforce the eviction order.111 Even if the commission requested execution of the eviction order, the court was authorized to suspend the process if the situation of the temporary occupant made “it probable that the execution would cause him irreparable or hardly reparable damage or that postponement is necessary to avoid violence.”112
Under the July 2002 amendments, state prosecutors have taken over the proceedings initiated by the disbanded housing commissions.113 The prosecutor must rely in the first instance, however, on the Ministry for Public Works/ODPR for documentation of cases appropriate for eviction. Although the now defunct housing commissions handed over relevant documentation to the Ministry for Public Works/ODPR by September 2002,114 the ministry was still in the process of transferring cases to the state prosecutor as late as February 2003, and in some counties, such as the Sibensko-Kninska county, even in April.115 In a number of key return areas that Human Rights Watch visited in June 2003, nongovernmental and international organizations were unaware of any case in which the state prosecutor had initiated eviction procedures in court,116 or knew of only a handful of such cases.117
Thus, the first year of the implementation of the July 2002 amendments has seen no improvement in the repossession of property. The authorities still avoid evicting those temporary occupants who are not entitled to housing care or refuse alternative accommodation, and decline to use temporary accommodation as a transitional step for the temporary occupants who are entitled to permanent alternative accommodation (housing care). A June 2003 report by the OSCE and the UNHCR concludes that “the average of return of occupied properties per month is even lower than in the period prior to the adoption of the Amendments.”118 In the municipality of Vojnic, only seven houses had been returned to their owners in the first half of 2003, out of 200 outstanding requests.119 In Benkovac, out of 118 cases of occupied property known to the Dalmatian Solidarity Committee as of February 2003, five had been resolved by end-April.120 In Plaski, there were forty-one outstanding repossession claims in August 2002 and thirty-seven in May 2003.121 When repossession occurs, it is more often due to the temporary occupant’s own efforts to find other housing than a result of the government’s involvement.122 The government has focused on two methods of facilitating repossession—provision of housing care for the temporary occupants or reconstruction of their property. Both methods have limited application, as the falling repossession rate illustrates.
Before the beginning of 2002, most courts in Croatia allowed only the housing commissions to file lawsuits for eviction of temporary occupants who had originally obtained official permission to use the property. Owners were unable to seek a legal remedy for violations of their right to peaceful enjoyment of property.
In excluding such cases, the courts, especially in the central and southern parts of Croatia, ignored the Law on Ownership and Other Real Property Rights, which grants owners access to courts when they are prevented from using their property.123 Instead, they relied on the 1998 Program for Return, which provided only that the housing commissions could sue for eviction from the houses once declared abandoned and then allocated to temporary occupants.
The courts’ interpretation was reinforced by an August 1999 memorandum from the president of the Supreme Court of the Republic of Croatia to all county courts in Croatia instructing them that the 1998 Program for Return should be implemented instead of the Law on Ownership and Other Real Property Rights. The memorandum stated that “the owner is not competent to file a claim for the eviction of a person who took possession of this property on the basis of a [decision] of the housing commission. In an action for eviction the owner may have only the position of an intervener on the side of the plaintiff (housing commission).”124
Croatian human rights groups, Serb associations, and the OSCE criticized this approach as incompatible with respect for the right of property. At the beginning of 2002, the Croatian Supreme Court had come to accept that the competence of the housing commissions to seek eviction of the temporary occupants does not preclude the owner from seeking the eviction himself. Abandoning the position from the August 1999 letter of its president, the Court took the position that the lower courts should process lawsuits filed by the owners against temporary occupants.125
The Supreme Court’s change of position came too late for numerous owners who had been worn out by years of futile efforts to repossess their property. In the one case in which Human Rights Watch was able to obtain a copy of a Supreme Court decision reflecting its new position on the ability of the owner to sue, the disillusioned co-owners sold their house near Karlovac two months after receiving the decision.126
In contrast to other parts of Croatia, in some parts of politically more moderate Western Slavonia, courts not only have accepted owners’ lawsuits against temporary occupants but have also often granted the request. The courts considered that the Law on Ownership and Other Real Property Rights entitled the owner to limit any other person from possession and use of his property. In this view, since July 1998, when the 1995 Law on Temporary Takeover ceased to exist, the government has had no competence over the property.127 These courts have held that owners do not have any obligation toward temporary occupants and their right to repossess the property is independent of the provision of alternative accommodation for temporary occupants.128 The obligation taken by the government to provide alternative accommodation was to be resolved between the government and the temporary occupants, but not at the expense of the dispossessed owners.129
In general, the judgments in these jurisdictions in Western Slavonia have been implemented, in some cases even with the assistance of the police.130 The state usually provided alternative accommodation to temporary occupants before they vacated, but provision of such accommodation was not requested by the court, and it did not significantly delay the reinstatement.131 In most cases, the state offered the evicted temporary occupants the so-called APN houses.132
In other parts of Croatia, even where courts have accepted private lawsuits and decided in favor of the owner, their judgments have established that temporary occupants should vacate the property only when alternative accommodation is provided for them.133 A memorandum by the law office of Rozman & Oredic mentions four such cases in the Karlovac area, in which the office represented the plaintiffs; the courts rendered the judgments in their favor in February 2002, but it was only in March and April 2003 that three plaintiffs managed to repossess their homes, once the temporary occupants found alternative accommodation, with state assistance or through their own initiative. The fourth plaintiff was still unable to move into her house as of mid-August 2003.134
The July 2002 amendments to the Law on Areas of Special State Concern explicitly authorize owners to sue temporary occupants, independent from the state prosecutor’s actions.135 The amendments fail to clarify, however, whether the courts should follow the Law on Ownership and Other Real Property Rights and order eviction irrespective of the availability of alternative housing care, or impose such conditions in reliance on the Law on Areas of Special State Concern. One year after the enactment of the amendments, court practice has been to resort to the housing care provisions in the July 2002 law and condition eviction on the provision of alternative accommodation for the temporary occupant.136 Thus, although the amended law now gives owners the right to sue, this prerogative remains without any practical effect.
In cases in which temporary occupants do vacate houses, looting and devastation of the house prior to their departure is a regular occurrence. A lawyer working on property repossession cases in Western Slavonia told Human Rights Watch that he was unaware of a single case in which a Serb refugee returned to an undamaged house.137 A member of the housing commission in Korenica knew of only one case, out of 200 repossessions between the end of the war and June 2002, in which the returnee found the house in such a condition that he was able to stay overnight.138
Human Rights Watch investigated a typical case that occurred in the town of Knin. Petar Djuric returned to Knin in 1997. Since a family of Croat refugees from Bosnia occupied his house, Djuric found accommodation with relatives in a nearby village. On August 8, 2000, Djuric learned that the Croat family was about to vacate his house. The next day, Djuric and two members of the Knin housing commission inspected the house and found it emptied of usable furniture, windows, doors, toilet bowls, boilers, and other items.139 The house was uninhabitable, and Djuric had no means to repair it, so he started looking for donor assistance. On August 10 or 11, however, another Croat family took possession of his house without any authorization, and the authorities have shown no willingness to evict them.140 In August 2001, when Human Rights Watch interviewed Petar Djuric, he lived with relatives in a village ten miles away. In June 2002, Djuric’s lawyer told Human Rights Watch that Djuric was still unable to return to his house;141 the situation was unchanged as of June 2003.142
The 1995 Law on Temporary Takeover provided that the local housing commissions established under that law were required to make inventory of the property at the time of its allocation to temporary occupants.143 Owners who wish to sue for looting and devastation of property are unable to obtain these inventories, primarily because in practice they were rarely made. Where the inventories do exist, they fail to describe in detail the condition of the property or to list the pieces of furniture and other items in the house.144
A great majority of owners who repossess their property do not even try to initiate court proceedings for compensation of damage or for the criminal act of looting. Former temporary occupants usually continue to live in the same area, and the returnees are afraid or feel uncomfortable to sue them. Also, court proceedings are expensive, and returnees feel that chances for obtaining justice through such proceedings are nil. In Korenica and Knin, local and international officials told Human Rights Watch that as of the end of 2002, no returnee had ever initiated court proceedings on this basis.145 A lawyer at the OSCE office in Pakrac was not aware of any such case in Western Slavonia either.146
The relatively few cases filed for compensation for looting appear to be nearly always, if not always, unsuccessful. In two years of monitoring return to Croatia, Human Rights Watch has not heard of a single case in which Serb returnees have successfully sought such compensation. In one case in which a returnee to Croatia sued, the court required the plaintiff to prove ownership of the stolen items with the original receipts, even where decades had passed since the piece of furniture or other item was bought. The court’s assumption was that the temporary occupant was the owner of the items, and the burden was on the property owner to prove the opposite.147 In other cases, the plaintiffs were unable to prove that the last temporary occupant, and not somebody else, had emptied the house of the furniture and appliances.148
Croatian returnees to Eastern Slavonia, to the houses previously occupied by Serbs, have faced a similar problem, and in most cases have failed to get compensation from the temporary occupants.149 The failure of the government to enforce the law on behalf of majority Croats as well as for minority Serbs is of little relevance to those who have lost property. The government cannot ignore devastation and theft just because it has been a regular occurrence in all parts of the country.
Under the July 2002 amendments to the Law on Areas of Special State Concern, state prosecutors have an obligation to sue for looting or devastation of property when the temporary occupant declines to compensate the owner.150 As of June 2003, Human Rights Watch interlocutors in nongovernmental organizations and the OSCE were unaware of any case in which a state prosecutor had initiated a lawsuit for damages. The beginning of such a practice could conceivably affect the conduct of departing occupants. In the few areas in which regional ODPRs have started to admonish the occupants in writing that they risk prosecution for damaging the property, looting and devastation have reportedly decreased.151 Actual prosecution, and introduction of criminal prosecution in lieu of lawsuits for damages, could only reinforce such comportment.
The experience of displaced Serbs trying to return to their pre-war homes in Croatia contrasts sharply with that of displaced Croats returning home to Vukovar and other parts of Eastern Slavonia, Baranja and Western Sirmium (collectively referred to hereafter as Eastern Slavonia), near the border with the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which were under Serb control during the war. Specifically, Serb temporary occupants have been rapidly evicted from Croat homes, even when no alternative accommodation was provided for them.
During the war, local Serb authorities expelled around 80,000 Croats to other parts of the country.152 At the same time, thousands of Serbs from Croatia who fled from the government-controlled territory settled in Eastern Slavonia—around 50,000 of them as of the end of war in 1995.153 They moved into the houses of the expelled Croats. The then-Serb authorities in Eastern Slavonia issued them decisions on temporary use of property, similar to the practice in the areas controlled by the central government.154
After the war, the Serb population remained in the area. A temporary U.N. administration was established to administer the area before it was returned to the Croatian government. In January 1998, Eastern Slavonia was fully reintegrated into the Croatian state. The 1997 Operational Agreement on Return stipulated that displaced Serbs occupying Croat property could only be removed from it once alternative accommodation was found for them.155 However, in the second half of 1998, when Croats began to return to the region, courts started to evict Serb temporary occupants without providing alternative accommodation.156 At the same time, Serb owners in other parts of the country were—and still are—unable to repossess their homes under similar circumstances. What became evident was a practice of ethnic discrimination against Serbs at the state level in the process of administering the post-war property regime.
After 1998, a majority of Serb temporary occupants left the area, and, according to local Serb leaders, less than 5,000 of them were still in Eastern Slavonia in 2001.157 Citing a Croatian Ministry for Public Works’ estimate, a May 2001 OSCE report states that not more than 3,465 displaced Serbs remained in the region.158
The widespread evictions of Serb temporary occupants in Eastern Slavonia are legally based on the government’s refusal to recognize wartime decisions for temporary use issued by the Serb authorities of the so-called Republika Srpska Krajina, to which the area belonged.159 In a typical case, on November 19, 1999, the Municipal Court in Vukovar ordered Petar Pajic, a Serb, to move out of the house of Milan Kordic, a Croat then living as a displaced person on the Adriatic coast. Pajic had received a decision on the temporary use of Kordic’s apartment in June 1992. The court found that the decision, “being an act of an occupying power, cannot authorize possession of another person’s property.” The court concluded: “The owner can … request repossession of his property… and he does not have to wait for the person in possession of his property to be provided other adequate accommodation.”160 The Vukovar county court eventually confirmed the municipal court’s decision and Milan Kordic repossessed his house.161
The authorities have been very efficient in evicting Serb occupants of Croat properties, and by the second half of 2001 the process was more or less completed.162 The Serbs who came to Eastern Slavonia during the war and still live in the area—up to 5,000 of them—have moved to other houses or apartments that they bought or rent, or to government-run collective centers. For a tiny fraction of them, the authorities secured alternative accommodation in so-called APN houses.163
In this manner, the authorities have discriminated against enjoyment of the basic human rights to property and a place to live. Ethnic Croats in other parts of Croatia enjoy an almost absolute protection from eviction, while ethnic Serbs in Eastern Slavonia have been evicted promptly without regard for the availability of alternative accommodation or other considerations.
24 Human Rights Watch interview with Mary Jane Meierdiercks-Popovic, UNHCR Mission in Serbia and Montenegro, Belgrade, August 20, 2001.
25 Human Rights Watch interview with Zora Vojvodic, Korenica, August 27, 2001.
26 Human Rights Watch interview with Borko Raskovic, Raskovici (near Knin), August 25, 2001.
27 Human Rights Watch interview with Simeuna Trisic, Orlici (near Knin), August 25, 2001.
28 Statement of Goran Granic, Croatian Deputy Prime Minister, quoted in “Hrvatska vraca svu imovinu” (Croatia Returns All Property), Vecernje Novosti (Belgrade), September 25, 2001; statement of Goran Granic, quoted in M.Pe., “Do kraja godine vracanje imovine vlasnicima” (Return of Property to Owners By the End of the Year), Vecernji List (Zagreb), June 11, 2002, and in Karlo Blaha, “Granic: Sva imovina bit ce vracena vlasnicima” (Granic: All Properties Will Be Returned to Their Owners), Vjesnik (Zagreb), June 11, 2002 [online], http://www.vjesnik.com/html/2002/06/11/Clanak.asp?r=unu&c=9 (retrieved June 20, 2003).
29 The first sentence in the Action Plan announces the following: “The government of the Republic of Croatia decided in its session held on 20 September 2001 to conclude the process of repossession of all occupied property by the end of 2002.” Government of the Republic of Croatia, Action Plan for Implementation of Repossession of Property by the End of 2002, December 31, 2001 (version in English), p. 1.
30 Law on Areas of Special State Concern (amended and consolidated version), Narodne novine (official gazette of the Republic of Croatia), no. 26/2003, January 28, 2003, article 27 (4).
31 On May 1, 1995, Croatian Army troops launched the offensive known as “Flash,” aimed at regaining control of Serb-held lands in Western Slavonia, an area designated as a “United Nations Protected Area.” By May 4, Croatian government troops had recaptured the area. During the fighting, Serbs fled Western Slavonia for Bosnian Serb-held regions. Human Rights Watch, “The Croatian Army Offensive in Western Slavonia and Its Aftermath,” A Human Rights Watch report, July 1995, Vol. 7, No. 11. Over 10,000 civilians and military personnel from the area crossed into Bosnia and Herzegovina during the first days of the offensive. A further 2,139 Croatian Serbs left in the following weeks. United Nations, “The Situation in the Occupied Territories of Croatia,” Report of the U.N. Secretary-General, A/50/648, October 18, 1995, para. 9. On August 4, 1995, the Croatian forces launched the military offensive “Storm” to retake the Krajina region, which had been held by Serbs since 1991. The offensive lasted a mere thirty-six hours. According to the indictment against Croatian general Ante Gotovina before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, an estimated 150,000-200,000 Serbs from Krajina fled during and in the aftermath of the operation. Prosecutor v. Gotovina, Indictment, Case No: IT 01 45 I, May 21, 2001, para 20.
32 Law on Temporary Takeover and Administration Of Specified Property, Narodne novine, no. 73/1995, September 27, 1995, article 2.
33 Law on Temporary Takeover and Administration Of Specified Property, article 5(1).
34 Law on Areas of Special State Concern, June 5, 1996, Narodne novine, no. 44/1996, article 8(3). The areas of special state concern are the areas that were under the control of Serb rebel forces during the war. Most of the Serb refugees and returnees are from that area; also, most Croat refugees from Bosnia were settled in the areas of special state concern, where many of them currently occupy Serb houses.
35 Human Rights Watch interview with an official from the OSCE Mission to Croatia, Zagreb, June 17, 2002.
36 The Law on Temporary Takeover and Administration of Specified Property, September 27, 1995, as amended on January 23, 1996, Narodne novine, no. 7/1996, article 11 (4).
37 Decision of the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Croatia, no. U-I-1037/1995; U-I-179/1996; U-I-639; U-I-839; U-I-948, September 25, 1997, Narodne novine, no. 100/1997. The Court also found that the 1995 law violated the provisions of the Constitution guaranteeing the right to return to one’s home country (article 32 of the Constitution), equality before the law (article 14(2)), and the provision forbidding limitation on ownership not warranted by the protection of State interests (article 50(2)). As developments since 1997 attest, this decision has been completely ignored by the Croatian parliament and courts.
38 Law Repealing the Law on Temporary Takeover and Administration of Specified Property, Narodne novine, no. 101/1998, July 28, 1998, article 1.
39 Narodne novine, no. 92/1998, June 26, 1998.
40 These were not the same commissions as those established under what was by then the defunct 1995 Law on Temporary Takeover. The housing commissions under the 1995 Law on Temporary Takeover had allocated abandoned property to new occupants; the task of the housing commissions under the Program for Return was to receive applications for repossession of occupied property, seek alternative accommodation for persons currently housed in temporarily used property, and issue eviction decisions once they provided the accommodation.
Each housing commission under the Program for Return had five members, of which two represented the predominant minority population of the municipality. The commission’s decisions about eviction were to be adopted by a majority vote with the support of at least one of the minority representatives. Program for Return, “Procedures for Return,” article 14.
41 Program for Return, “Procedures for Return,” article 9 (1).
42 Program for Return, “Procedures for Return,” article 10.
43 Amendments to the Law on Areas of Special State Concern, Narodne novine, no. 88/2002, July 24, 2002.
44 Ibid., article 15 (2).
45 Law on Areas of Special State Concern (amended and consolidated version), Narodne novine, no. 26/2003, January 28, 2003, article 18 (4).
46 Ibid., article 18 (5).
47 The law defines temporary alternative accommodation as accommodation in a state-owned house or apartment where housing space is “below adequate size,” or accommodation in property rented by the state. Ibid., article 17 (1).
48 Ibid., article 7 (3) and article 38.
49 Narodne novine, no 73/1995.
50 In the process of revision of the decisions on temporary allocation of private property in accordance with the 1995 law, the government has offered differing statistics. By June 2001 it had registered decisions on allocation of 18,650 housing units; in December 2001 the number was 18,342, and in May 2002 – 18,865.
51 Ministry for Public Works, Reconstruction and Construction/Office for Displaced Persons, Returnees and Refugees, Progress in the Process of Return of Displaced Persons and Refugees in the Period from 2000 – end June 2003 (Report from 01 July 2003), p. 2 (on file with Human Rights Watch).
52 Of 9,543 properties occupied at the end of 2001, in 705 cases, properties were used without authorization (the person who received a certificate of temporary occupancy eventually moved out, and a new temporary occupant moved in without authorization). Government of the Republic of Croatia, Action Plan for Implementation of Repossession of Property by the End of 2002, December 31, 2001 (version in English).
53 In 523 cases, occupants had their own houses reconstructed, while an additional thirty-one occupants received housing from the state. Ibid.
54 Republic of Croatia Ombudsman, 2001 Annual Report, p. 33.
55 Program for Return, “Procedures for Return,” article 9 (2).
56 Human Rights Watch interview with a representative of the OSCE field office in Korenica, Korenica, August 27, 2001.
57 Human Rights Watch interview with Nikola Lalic, member of the then-housing commission in Korenica and president of the local branch of the Serbian Democratic Forum, Korenica, June 16, 2002.
58 Human Rights Watch interview with the Livaja family, Orlic (near Knin), August 25, 2001.
59 Human Rights Watch interview with Radmila Andric, head of the Gracac office of the Dalmatian Committee of Solidarity, Gracac, August 28, 2001; Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Radmila Andric, December 9, 2002.
60 Decree on Conditions and Criteria For Housing Care in The Areas of Special State Concern, Narodne novine, no. 10/2001, February 6, 2001, article 4.
61 Local human rights groups and the OSCE officials told Human Rights Watch that Turek, son of a state official from the Tudjman era, at the time occupied two houses owned by ethnic Serbs in the municipality of Slunj, and prevented a Serb family from using two other houses owned by the family members. Turek was formally designated as temporary occupant of only one of these four houses, and as such the law entitled him to alternative accommodation.
62 D. Kundic, “Rendulic: Turek ce se seliti kad mu nadjemo alternativni smjestaj” (Rendulic: Turek Will Move Out When We Find Alternative Accommodation For Him), Karlovacki list (Karlovac), May 4, 2002 (statement by Miroslav Rendulic, president of Slunj Housing Commission).
63 Law on Areas of Special State Concern (amended and consolidated version), Narodne novine, no. 26/2003, January 28, 2003, article 17 (4).
64 Human Rights Watch interview with a representative of the OSCE field office in Karlovac, June 11, 2003.
65 Human Rights Watch interview with S.Dz., Popovic brdo (near Karlovac), June 11, 2003. The owner of the house, Ranka Vidnjevic, sued him in April 2002, but the court has not rendered a decision. Human Rights Watch interview with Ranka Vidnjevic, Popovic brdo, June 11, 2003.
66 Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe & United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 3rd Report on Issues of Property Repossession under the July 2002 Amendments to the Law on Areas of Special State Concern (February 2003-May 2003), June 12, 2003, p. 7.
67 Seebelow, chapter “Eviction of Serbs from Croat Homes in Eastern Slavonia.”
68 As of the end of 2001, the government had identified 705 properties used without authorization, in cases in which first temporary occupants had had such authorization, but subsequently another family moved in without obtaining government’s authorization. Government of the Republic of Croatia, Action Plan for Implementation of Repossession of Property by the End of 2002, December 31, 2001 (version in English). There is an additional unknown number of houses that from the start have been occupied without a government certificate.
69 Program of Return, “Procedures for Return,” article 10.
70 Program for Return, “Procedures for Return, ” article 9 (3) and article 10.
71 Government of the Republic of Croatia, Revision of Decisions on the Law on Temporary Takeover (Final Revision Results, June 2001); Government of the Republic of Croatia, Action Plan for Implementation of Repossession of Property by the End of 2002, December 31, 2001 (version in English).
72 Human Rights Watch interview with a representative of the OSCE Mission to Croatia, Zagreb, June 12, 2003.
73 Program for Return, “Procedures for Return,” article 10.
74 Human Rights Watch interview with Nikola Lalic, member of the then-housing commission in Korenica, Korenica, June 16, 2002.
75 Human Rights Watch reviewed each individual case with Nikola Lalic during the June 16, 2002 interview.
76 Human Rights Watch interview with Nikola Lalic, head of Korenica branch of the Serbian Democratic Forum, Korenica, June 10, 2003. APN buys houses from refugees unwilling to return to Croatia, who usually sell at a below-market price because of the urgent need of money for accommodation in Serbia and Montenegro or in Bosnia and Herzegovina (Republika Srpska), the countries of refuge for most refugees.
77 Letter from Danilo Stanic to the Ministry of Justice, Local Administration and Self-Administration, June 15, 2001; request by Danilo Stanic for repossession of property, submitted to the Ministry for Public Works, Reconstruction and Construction, February 6, 2001.
78 Judgment of the Gracac Municipal Court, no. P-51/01, July 26, 2002.
79 Human Rights Watch interview with Radmila Andric, head of the Gracac office of the Dalmatian Committee of Solidarity, Gracac, June 10, 2003.
80 Program for Return, “Procedures for Return,” article 10.
81 Article 16 (4) of the Law on the Cessation of the Application of the Law on Temporary Abandoned Real Property Owned by Citizens, Official Gazette of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, no. 11/98, 29/98, 27/99; article 11 (3) of the Law on the Cessation of the Application of the Law on Abandoned Apartments, Official Gazette of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, no. 11/98, 38/98, 12/99, 18/99, 27/99; article 24a (4) and article 34 (3) of the Law on the Cessation of Application of the Law on the Use of Abandoned Property, Official Gazette of Republika Srpska, no. 38/98, December 11, 1998, with amendments on April 13, 1999, and October 27, 1999.
82 Human Rights Watch interview with Simeuna Trisic, Orlic (near Knin), August 25, 2001. Human Rights Watch also interviewed the parents of the wife whose family occupied Trisic’s house. The parents confirmed that their son-in-law worked in Germany, although they said that he did it only “from time to time.” Human Rights Watch interview with Mr. and Mrs. Livaja, Orlic, August 25, 2001.
83 Human Rights Watch interview with Iris Vasiljevic, Knin office of the Croatian Helsinki Committee, Knin, June 11, 2002; Human Rights Watch interview with Simeuna Trisic, Orlic, June 9, 2003.
84 Republic of Croatia Ombudsman, 2001 Annual Report, p. 37. To strengthen the occupant’s case, the commission found it necessary to add that the person at issue “chose to fight against the [Serb] aggression.”
85 Human Rights Watch interview with Nikola Lalic, member of the then-housing commission in Korenica and president of the local branch of the Serbian Democratic Forum, Korenica, June 16, 2002.
86 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Nikola Lalic, December 12, 2002; Human Rights Watch interview with B.B., M.K., and D.S., returnees to Licko Petrovo Selo, Licko Petrovo Selo, June 7, 2003.
87 Sixty-one percent of the users are families from Bosnia and Herzegovina, 29 percent from Croatia, 6 percent from Serbia and Montenegro, and 4 percent from other countries. Ministry for Public Works, Reconstruction and Construction/Directorate for Expellees, Returnees and Refugees (ODPR), “Revision of Decision on the Law on Temporary Takeover, Final Revision Results,” June 6, 2001. An estimated 128,000 persons from Bosnia and Herzegovina currently live in Croatia. A majority—120,000—obtained Croatian citizenship and lost their refugee status. OSCE Mission to Croatia, Status Report no. 11, November 18, 2002, p. 13.
88 Ministry for Public Works, Reconstruction and Construction – Department for Expellees, Returnees and Refugees, Revision of Decisions on the Law on Temporary Takeover, Final Revision Results, June 6, 2001.
89 Government of the Republic of Croatia, Action Plan for Implementation of Repossession of Property by the End of 2002, December 31, 2001 (version in English), para. 3.2.
90 Amendments to the Law on Areas of Special State Concern, Narodne novine, no. 73/2000, July 21, 2000, article 8 (2).
91 Amendments to the Law on Areas of Special State Concern, July 24, 2002, article 5 (3) and article 27. Only if the house or apartment is occupied and the person is unable to repossess it does the Croatian government have to provide housing care for him in Croatia.
92 Human Rights Watch interview with representatives of the OSCE field office in Karlovac, Karlovac, June 11, 2003 (the office monitors the returns process in several municipalities in the Kordun region, including the municipality of Vojnic).
93 See Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Mission to Croatia, Status Report No. 12, July 3, 2003, p. 5.
94 Human Rights Watch telephone interviews with OSCE representatives in Knin (December 12, 2002), Korenica (December 13, 2002), and Pakrac (December 18, 2002).
95 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with an OSCE representative in Pakrac, December 18, 2002.
96 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Medzid Lipjankic, Head of the Department for Monitoring of the Realization of Rights of Refugees and Displaced Persons, Ministry for Human Rights and Refugees of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, January 6, 2003.
97 Again, this information pertains primarily to reconstructed properties in Bosnia and Herzegovina, excluding other properties that temporary occupants in Croatia may own there. Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Edin Dzumhur, operations manager, Housing Verification and Monitoring unit, January 6, 2003. Formally a nongovernmental organization, HVM works closely with the Reconstruction and Return Task Force (RRTF) in Bosnia and Herzegovina. RRTF coordinates return efforts in Bosnia and Herzegovina of international organizations, the United States, Germany, and the Netherlands.
98 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Ana-Marija Radic, spokesperson for the Croatian Ministry for Public Works, Reconstruction and Construction, June 24, 2003.
99 If the temporary occupant refused to vacate the house and the state prosecutor brought the case before the court, the court should be able to establish the authenticity and the value of such evidence.
100 Program for Return, “Procedures for Return,” article 9 (1).
102 As discussed above, there were various grounds on which the local housing commissions could request eviction of the temporary occupants without providing alternative accommodation for them. One such ground was that the occupant never received a decision authorizing him to use the abandoned property. Similarly, an occupant who used the property for business purposes rather than to accommodate his family should have been evicted immediately. Also, if the occupants had a house that had been damaged during the war, and the state had reconstructed the house in the meantime, they were obliged to return to the owner the property they had been allocated.
103 Program for Return, “Procedures for Return, ” article 10.
104 Program for Return, “Procedures for Return, ” article 9 (3) and article 10.
105 Law on Implementation, Narodne novine, no. 57/1996 and no. 29/1999, article 3.
106 Law on Areas of Special State Concern (amended and consolidated version), Narodne novine, no. 26/2003, January 28, 2003, article 18 (6).
107 Ibid., article 31 (4).
108 OSCE Mission to the Republic of Croatia, Status Report no. 10: Assessment of Issues Covered by the OSCE Mission to the Republic of Croatia’s Mandate since 12 November 2001, May 21, 2002, p. 12. Nongovernmental organizations in Croatia shared this assessment. See, e.g., Croatian Law Center, “Property Rights of Expelled Persons and Refugees in the Republic of Croatia,” July 2001, p. 15.
109 Human Rights Watch interview with Simo Kurusic, lawyer with the Serbian Democratic Forum in Daruvar, Pakrac, September 3, 2001; a lawyer at the OSCE office in Pakrac (Western Slavonia) was also unaware of any case in which a housing commission sued temporary occupant for refusing to vacate the property. Human Rights Watch telephone interview, January 13, 2003.
110 OSCE Field Office in Zadar, Return And Integration In Zadar, The Balance As Per 19 July 2001, p. 9.
111 In December 2001 and February 2002, for example, a court in Karlovac rendered judgments against the temporary occupants of the houses owned by Nikola Madzar and Stevan Malic, in Karlovac and Krnjak respectively. But, the housing commissions failed to request eviction based on the judgments. Memorandum by the law office Rozman & Oredic, April 17, 2002 (Rozman & Oredic represented the owners, who participated as interveners.); Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Mirjana Oredic, Rozman & Oredic law office, January 13, 2003.
112 Law on Implementation, Narodne novine, no. 57/1996 and no. 29/1999, article 61.
113 Law on Areas of Special State Concern (amended and consolidated version), Narodne novine, no. 26/2003, January 28, 2003, article 40.
114 Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe & United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 1st Report on Issues of Property Repossession under the July 2002 Amendments to the Law on Areas of Special State Concern (August-October 2002), October 31, 2002, p. 7 and 10.
115 Human Rights Watch interview with a staff member in the OSCE field office in Knin, Knin, June 9, 2003.
116 Human Rights Watch interview with Nikola Vukas, head of the office of the Serbian Democratic Forum in Benkovac, Benkovac, June 8, 2003; Human Rights Watch interview with Mirela Bilokapic, head of the Benkovac office of the Dalmatian Committee of Solidarity, Benkovac, June 10, 2003; Human Rights Watch interview with Nikola Lalic, head of the local branch of the Serbian Democratic Forum, Korenica, June 10, 2003.
117 In Knin, where the transfer of the cases from the ODPR/Ministry for Public Works to the state prosecutor took place only in April 2003, the state prosecutor had brought lawsuits in “five or six cases” as of early June. Human Rights Watch interview with a representative of the OSCE field office in Knin, June 9, 2003.
118 Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe & United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 3rd Report on Issues of Property Repossession under the July 2002 Amendments to the Law on Areas of Special State Concern (February 2003-May 2003), June 12, 2003, p. 2.
119 Human Rights Watch interview with Mile Djuric, secretary general at the office of the Serbian Democratic Forum in Vojnic, Vojnic, June 11, 2003.
120 Letter from the Dalmatian Committee of Solidarity-office in Benkovac to the Knin office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, April 22, 2003 (on file with Human Rights Watch).
121 Human Rights Watch interview with a representative of the OSCE field office in Karlovac, June 11, 2003.
122 Human Rights Watch interview with Jelka Glumicic, Committee for Human Rights, Karlovac, June 6, 2003; Human Rights Watch interview with Nikola Vukas, head of the office of the Serbian Democratic Forum in Benkovac, Benkovac, June 8, 2003.
123 Law on Ownership and Other Real Property Rights, Narodne novine, no. 91/1996, October 28, 1996. According to article 30, “The right of ownership is a real property right over an object which entitles its bearer to use that object and do whatever he pleases with those uses, and to exclude any other person from it, provided that it is not contrary to the rights of others and to restrictions imposed by law.”
124 Ombudsman of Croatia, 2001 Annual Report, p. 35 (quoting a translation of the memorandum of the president of the Supreme Court of the Republic of Croatia).
125 See, for example, the Decision of the Supreme Court of Croatia, no. Rev-268/02-2, March 20, 2002.
126 Human Rights Watch interview with Ninko Miric, legal counsel at the Norwegian Refugee Council, Sisak, June 14, 2002. The two women, Dusanka Kosanovic and Svjetlana Topic, from Karlovac area, had a house in the village of Tocak. They sold the house in June 2002 to the state-run Agency for the Mediation in the Sale of Immovable Properties (APN). The house has been occupied and used as a restaurant since 1996 by Tomislav Turek. Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Dusanka Kosanovic, June 23, 2003.
127 This argument is made for example in the judgment by the Municipal Court in Daruvar, no. P.269/98-10, May 4, 1999.
128 Judgment of the Bjelovar County Court, no. Gz.10/2000-2, February 3, 2000.
129 Judgment by the Municipal Court in Daruvar, no. P.269/98-10, May 4, 1999.
130 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with a lawyer at the OSCE office in Pakrac, January 13, 2003; Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Obrad Ivanovic, head of the office of the Serbian Democratic Forum in Pakrac, June 24, 2003. In a number of cases, however, the owners sold the property before the procedure reached the implementation stage. Ibid.
131 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with a lawyer at the OSCE office in Pakrac, January 13, 2003; Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Simo Kurusic, lawyer with the Serbian Democratic Forum in Daruvar, January 14, 2002; Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Judge Ranka Mikelic-Varga, January 14, 2002 (Mikelic-Varga, now a misdemeanor judge in the town of Garesnica, represented as a lawyer a number of private plaintiffs in Western Slavonia who won repossession cases).
132See above, footnote 76.
133 Human Rights Watch interview with an official from the OSCE Mission to Croatia, June 17, 2002; Human Rights Watch interview with Ninko Miric, legal advisor, Norwegian Refugee Council, Sisak, June 14, 2002. See, for example, the Judgment of the Municipal Court in Glina, no. P-124/00-8, July 9, 2001 (repossession conditioned by the provision of alternative accommodation on the part of the Ministry for Public Works, Reconstruction and Construction, for the temporary occupants).
134 Memorandum by the law office Rozman & Oredic, Karlovac, April 17, 2002 (describing the cases of Draginja Uzelac, Marko Klipa, Milka Vucinic, and Dragica Breberina); Human Rights Watch telephone interview with associate of Mirjana Oredic, Rozman & Oredic law office, August 18, 2003.
135 Law on Areas of Special State Concern (amended and consolidated version), Narodne novine, no. 26/2003, January 28, 2003, article 18 (5).
136 Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe & United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 3rd Report on Issues of Property Repossession under the July 2002 Amendments to the Law on Areas of Special State Concern (February 2003-May 2003), June 12, 2003, p. 12.
137 Human Rights Watch interview with Simo Kurusic, lawyer with the Serbian Democratic Forum in Daruvar, Pakrac, September 3, 2001.
138 Human Rights Watch interview with Nikola Lalic, member of the then-Korenica housing commission and president of the local branch of the Serbian Democratic Forum, Korenica, June 16, 2002.
139 Human Rights Watch saw the minutes, signed by Djuric and the two members of the housing commission, describing the poor state of the house as determined during the inspection.
140 Human Rights Watch interview with Petar Djuric, Plavno (near Knin), August 24, 2001.
141 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Ratko Gajica, lawyer, June 11, 2002.
142 Human Rights Watch interview with Jovo Tisma, president of the Knin branch of the Serbian Democratic Forum, June 9, 2003.
143 Law on Temporary Takeover, article 5 (3).
144 Human Rights Watch interview with a representative of the OSCE field office in Knin, June 9, 2003.
145 Human Rights Watch interview with Nikola Lalic, member of the then-Korenica housing commission and president of the local branch of the Serbian Democratic Forum, Korenica, June 16, 2002; Human Rights Watch interview with an OSCE official, Knin, June 12, 2002; Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Jovo Tisma, president of the Knin branch of the Serbian Democratic Forum, December 13, 2002.
146 Human Rights Watch telephone interview, December 18, 2002.
147 Human Rights Watch interview with Ninko Miric. A lawyer employed in the Norwegian Refugee Council, Miric attempted—to no avail—to get compensation for the looting of his furniture, upon return to his house in Vojnic in 1998.
148 Human Rights Watch interview with Ninko Miric.
149 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Dusko Simic, Legal Adviser, Norwegian Refugee Council-Vukovar, December 13, 2002.
150 Law on Areas of Special State Concern (amended and consolidated version), Narodne novine, no. 26/2003, January 28, 2003, article 18 (9).
151 This has allegedly been the case in Korenica, since April 2003. Human Rights Watch interview with Nikola Lalic, head of Korenica office of the Serbian Democratic Forum, June 9, 2003.
152 Human Rights Watch, Human Rights In Eastern Slavonia During and After the Transition of Authority, A Human Rights Watch report, April 1997, Vol. 9, No. 6 (D).
153 Human Rights Watch interview with Milos Vojnovic, then-advisor at the Joint Council of Municipalities, Vukovar, September 4, 2001. The Joint Council of Municipalities was foreseen in the November 1995 Basic Agreement on the Region of Eastern Slavonia, Baranja, and Sirmium, which created legal grounds for temporary U.N. administration over the region pending its return to the Croatian government; the Council was to represent the interests of the local Serb community with the Croatian authorities.
154 Human Rights Watch interview with Milos Vojnovic, Vukovar, September 4, 2001; Human Rights Watch interview with Dusko Simic, Legal Adviser, Norwegian Refugee Council, Vukovar, June 22, 2002.
155SeeHuman Rights Watch, “Second Class Citizens: The Serbs of Croatia,” A Human Rights Watch report, March 1999, Vol. 11, No. 3 (D), p. 9 and 14.
156 Human Rights Watch interview with Dusko Simic, Legal Adviser, Norwegian Refugee Council, Vukovar, June 22, 2002.
157 Human Rights Watch interview with Milos Vojnovic, then-advisor at the Joint Council of Municipalities, Vukovar, September 4, 2001.
158 OSCE Mission to the Republic of Croatia, Report on Croatia’s Progress in Meeting International Commitments Since 18 April 1996, May 24, 2001, para. 56.
159 Republika Srpska Krajina comprised the parts of Croatia controlled by Serb rebels, in center-south (Krajina), center-west (Western Slavonia), and east (Eastern Slavonia, Baranja and Sirmium).
160 Judgment of the Vukovar Municipal Court, no. VI P-603/98, November 19, 1998.
161 Human Rights Watch interview with Dusko Simic, Legal Adviser, Norwegian Refugee Council, Vukovar, June 22, 2002.
162 Ibid.; Human Rights Watch interview with Milos Vojnovic, then-advisor at the Joint Council of Municipalities, Vukovar, September 4, 2001.
163 Human Rights Watch interview with Milos Vojnovic, then-advisor at the Joint Council of Municipalities, Vukovar, September 4, 2001.