In the past year-and-a-half, there has been an upsurge of violence and intimidation against members of the Serb minority in Croatia. The Interior Ministry registered forty-eight such incidents with clear or possible ethnic motivation in the first eleven months of 2005.41 Frequent incidents have continued in 2006, particularly in the Zadar area, where seventeen incidents were reported in the first half of the year.
An incident involving people from different ethnic groups can be motivated by factors other than ethnicity. In the rash of recent cases, however, the ethnic motivation is often obvious. Graffiti calling for violence against Serbs, and bomb explosions at municipal assembly buildings in majority Serb villages, for example, are difficult to explain otherwise.
The incidents have caused understandable concern among the Serb minority. They also led to an assessment by Croatias leading human rights group, the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, that the human rights situation in 2005 had seriously deteriorated compared to the previous year.42
In 2005, there were two murders of elderly Serbs that bore the hallmarks of ethnic hatred. On March 30, a former Croatian policeman killed seventy-one-year-old Mileva Domjaković in her family house in the village of Greda, near Sisak. During the investigation and at the trial the perpetrator reportedly admitted that the motive for the crime was ethnic hatred.43 In the morning of May 18, unknown perpetrators killed eighty-one-year-old Duan Vidić from the village of Donji Karin, near Benkovac. Although the perpetrators of the crime have not been found, the absence of an obvious criminal motivation for the killinghe had little money on him and had not been involved in any disputes with his neighborsraised concerns of ethnic motivation.44
Two other cases in 2005 remain unsolved. On October 11 and November 13, respectively, fifty-five-year-old Milan Paunović and sixty-year-old Bogdo Stanković died in explosions near the Serb village of Jagma, in Slavonia region.45 Local residents told the media that the area in which Paunović and Stanković died had been safely frequented by various persons in the past, and there was nothing to indicate that it had been mined during the war.46 If the explosions were deliberate, it is likely that Serbs were the target.
Other incidents in 2005 included: the beating of Serb returnees in Benkovac and it surroundings, and in villages around Kistanje; windows of Serb houses broken and threatening messages daubed on their facades; damage to vehicles owned by Croatian Serbs or vehicles with Serbian registration plates in various parts of the country; graffiti calling for violence against Serbs; broken windows at the entrance of Serb cultural and religious objects in Split and Drni; and two bomb explosions at the municipal assembly buildings in the majority Serb villages of Borovo selo and Trpinja, near Vukovar.47
An incident that occurred in the evening of January 6, 2005, in Đevrske, a Serb village between Knin and Benkovac, is illustrative. Around sixty Serbs had gathered in the café Engel that evening to celebrate the Orthodox Christmas Eve. Three young Croats from the nearby village of Velika Čista entered the café, and, according to a witness, began to provoke the Serbs:
The police filed charges against Ante Peić under article 129(2) of the Croatian Penal Code for threat, a minor criminal offense punishable by up to one years imprisonment or by a fine.49 The case was never brought to court.
Most alleged ethnically motivated incidents in 2006 have occurred in Zadar county, especially in the villages around the town of Benkovac. During the war, Serb forces killed dozens of civilians in Croat villages in the area, including the villages of kabrnja, Nadin, and Bruka. The crimes remain largely unpunished, which may account for the continuing tensions in the area. In 2005, the OSCE field office for Zadar county registered twenty-two incidents with Serb victims in its area of responsibility. By May 2006, the same office had registered seventeen incidents for the year so far.50
The Ministry of Interior in early 2006 appointed regional focal points in three areas in Croatia to systematize collection of information about ethnically motivated incidents and to monitor the response of the local police. Ilija Krneta, the focal point for Zadar (Benkovac) and Knin, described some of the incidents to Human Rights Watch:
Incidents have occurred in other parts of Croatia. Among the most serious was the detonation in April of an explosive device in the orchard of Duko Narančić, a Serb returnee living in the village of Gaj, near Gospić. Narančić suffered light injuries on his face and body as a result. The police identified the likely perpetrator, a Croat neighbor of Narančić, but the public prosecutor in Gospić decided not to pursue the case because of insufficient evidence.53
Many of the incidents during 2006 have been acts designed to intimidate, such as verbal insults and threats. Other incidents include deliberate damage to property, beatings, and painting graffiti containing hate messages.54
In most cases, the police failed to apprehend the perpetrators of ethnically related incidents. Our review of the Ministry of Interior report reveals that in thirty-three of the forty-eight incidents reported in 2005 with Serb victims, the perpetrators remained unknown. Among the fifteen cases in which the alleged perpetrators were identified, circumstances in at least six strongly suggest that there was an ethnic motivation, and three of those cases include serious misconduct. In all three serious cases, the police filed criminal charges. The former policeman who murdered Mileva Domjaković on March 30, 2005, was sentenced to eleven years imprisonment in November 2005.55 In the remaining case, Stipan Boto, a Croat from the village of Stari Jankovci, near Vukovar, received a suspended 3-month prison sentence in June 2006 (which he will not have to serve unless he commits another offense in the next year) because of an incident on May 21, 2005, in which he used a pickaxe to break the windscreen, back window and front side window of the car owned by a Serb woman.56 According to the Serb Democratic Forum, the woman and her mother were present during the incident, and the offender threatened both women with the words I am Ustasha I will kill you all Go back to Chetniks!57 The one-page judgment makes no reference to this aspect of the event.
It has proved particularly difficult to identify perpetrators of violence targeting properties in barely populated villages, or attacks against the buildings of Serb cultural associations or the Orthodox Church. It is troubling, however, that aside from the incident in Gaj, where the case was discontinued for lack of sufficient evidence, the police have failed to identify the perpetrators of the four other explosions on Serb-owned land or at public buildings in Serb communities during 2005-06.
There have been mixed signals about the attitude of the police toward incidents against Serbs. In some cases, it appears that the attitude bordered on indifference, or that the primary concern of the police consisted in something other than resolving the case. In one of the incidents described above, the Serb returnee affected told Human Rights Watch that the team of police inspectors who paid him a visit to take a statement spent most of the time focusing on a different matter. He claims that they were primarily interested in the names of Serbs who had fought with rebel Serb forces on the local frontline during the war, when Serbs forces killed some Croat civilians in the area.58 The policemen present at the May 2, 2006, soccer match in Knin told their superiors that they did not hear any songs and slogans exalting violence against Serbs, which is highly improbable in light of the testimonies of other persons who were present.59
On the positive side, police patrolling intensified in those areas in which incidents occurred. After the January 6, 2005 incident in the Engel café in Đevrske, the police patrolled every evening for several months. As of mid-May 2006, they continued to pass by every other evening.60 The OSCE field office in Zadar, whose area of responsibility includes Benkovac and its environs, told Human Rights Watch that police patrolling in that area has become more frequent.61 It is also significant that the Ministry of Interior created a report documenting incidents in 2005, as a sign of willingness to openly confront the issue. The appointment of the regional focal points is also a step in the right direction.
During the period in which the incidents referred to in this report occurred, Croatian criminal law lacked hate crime provisions, that would permit the imposition of greater sentences for ethnically aggravated forms of offenses against the person, property, public order, and similar offenses. On June 9, 2006, the Croatian parliament adopted amendments to the Penal Code that include a provision on hate crimes.62 The new provision offers an opportunity to the judiciary to impose higher sentences on the perpetrators of ethnic violence, and to signal more generally to the police and society as a whole that such offenses are regarded with the utmost seriousness by the Croatian authorities.
While there have been some positive developments in the area of policy, the authorities in Croatia could do more to send an unequivocal public message that recent ethnic violence is unacceptable and damaging to Croatia. Prime Minister Ivo Sanader condemned the killing of Duan Vidić on May 18, 2005,63 as well as the stoning of four homes belonging to Serb returnees in the village of Biljane Donje, near Benkovac, on July 25, 2006, by four Croat suspects.64 The Committee for Human Rights and Minority Rights of the Croatian parliament condemned ethnic violence at the session of January 26, 2006.65 However, it was only after the July 25, 2006, incident in Biljane Donje that the Croatian deputy prime minister and the Croatian president paid visits to the area most affected by ethnic incidents to publicly condemn the violence and call for ethnic tolerance.66
The response from local government authorities has been muted. For example, despite the intervention of the OSCE, the authorities in Sisak have not painted over the message Leave While You Still Have Time U, written on the facade of a reconstructed Serb house at the beginning of 2006. The U stands for Ustasha, the World War II Croatian fascists. The mayor of Sisak told the OSCE two weeks after the message appeared that the town authorities would paint it over, but the graffiti was still there as of early June.67 Local officials in Knin have never condemned the May 2, 2006 incident when part of the crowd at the soccer match chanted anti-Serb slogans.68
41 Ministry of Interior of the Republic of Croatia, Incidents Involving Members of the Serb National Minority, report submitted to the Committee for Human Rights and the Rights of National Minorities in the Croatian Parliament, December 12, 2005 (English translation, on file with Human Rights Watch).
42 See International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, Human Rights in the OSCE Region: Europe, Central Asia and North America, Report 2006 (Events of 2005), www.ihf-hr.org/viewbinary/viewdocument.php?doc_id=6842 (accessed June 14, 2006), p. 119.
43 S.Ab., U smrt zbog: Nisu samo Srbi krivi za rat (To Death Because of: The War Was Not Only Serbs Fault), Novi List (Rijeka), April 2, 2005; Zbog Oluje susjedu zadavio telefonskom icom (Strangled His Neighbor with a Telephone Cord Because of [Operation] Storm Index.hr, December 3, 2005, www.financije.index.hr/clanak/aspx?id=294773 (accessed June 13, 2006).
44 Marina Bilu, Na otac nije imao neprijatelje i volio je ovu zemlju (Our Father Had No Enemy and Loved This Country), Nacional (Zagreb), May 24, 2005, www.nacional.hr/articles/view/18570/3 (accessed June 23, 2006); Ante Vidović, Duan Vidić ubijen na putu prema pekari (Duan Vidić Killed on the Way to the Bakery), Novi List (Rijeka), May 20, 2005. See also International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, Human Rights in the OSCE Region: Europe, Central Asia and North America, Report 2006 (Events of 2005), www.ihf-hr.org/viewbinary/viewdocument.php?doc_id=6842 (accessed June 14, 2006), p. 124.
45 Ministry of Interior of the Republic of Croatia, Incidents Involving Members of the Serb National Minority, report submitted to the Committee for Human Rights and the Rights of National Minorities in the Croatian Parliament, December 12, 2005.
46 Vesna Milković, Povratnik poginuo od podmetnute naprave (Returnee Killed by Planted Device), Večernji List (Zagreb), November 14, 2005, http://www.vecernji-list.hr/newsroom/blackchronicle/417612/index.do (accessed June 8, 2006).
47Human Rights Watch, World Report 2006 (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2006), chapter on Croatia; Ministry of Interior of the Republic of Croatia, Incidents Involving Members of the Serb National Minority, report submitted to the Committee for Human Rights and the Rights of National Minorities in the Croatian Parliament, December 12, 2005.
48 Human Rights Watch interview with D.V., Đevrske, May 11, 2006.
49 Ministry of Interior of the Republic of Croatia, Incidents Involving Members of the Serb National Minority, report submitted to the Committee for Human Rights and the Rights of National Minorities in the Croatian Parliament, December 12, 2005, incident no. 2.
50 Human Rights Watch interview with an officer in the OSCE Field Office Zadar, May 15, 2006.
51 Human Rights Watch interview with Dragan Jerković, president of the Council of the Serb National Minority in Knin, May 12, 2006.
52 Human Rights Watch interview with Ilija Krneta, advisor in the Ministry of Interior, Zadar, May 15, 2006.
53 Human Rights Watch interview with an officer in the OSCE Field Office Gospić, May 19, 2006.
54 Human Rights Watch interview with an officer in the OSCE Field Office Zadar, May 15, 2006.
55 Croatian Sentenced to 11 Years in Prison for Murdering Serb Woman, BBC Monitoring International Reports, December 4, 2005 (text of report by Bosnia-Herzegovina Federation News Agency FENA).
56 Municipal court in Vinkovci, Judgment no K-305/05 (June 9, 2006).
58 Human Rights Watch interview, Croatia, May 19, 2006. Name and location withheld.
59 Human Rights Watch interview with Ilija Krneta, advisor in the Ministry of Interior, Zadar, May 15, 2006.
60 Human Rights Watch interview with T.A., waitress in the café Engel, Đevrske, May 11, 2006.
61 Human Rights Watch interview with an officer in the OSCE Field Office Zadar, May 15, 2006.
62 Amendments to the Penal Code, Narodne novine, no. 71/2006, June 28, 2006, article 14 (amending article 89).
63 J.Ma, Sanader trai hitnu istragu (Sanader Requests Urgent Investigation), Novi List (Rijeka), May 20, 2005.
64 Hina-Croatian News Agency, Vlada najotrije osuđuje napad na kuće srpskih povratnika (The Government Categorically Condemns the Attack on the Serb Returnees Houses), Index.hr, July 25, 2006, www.index.hr/clanak.aspx?id=323056 (accessed July 25, 2006).
65 Parliamentary Committee Voices Concern about Ethnically Motivated Incidents, HINA-Croatian News Agency, January 26, 2006.
66 Hina-Croatian News Agency, Mesić posjetio napadnute obitelji u Biljanima Donjim (Mesic Visited the Families Attacked in Biljane Donje), Index.hr, July 26, 2006, www.index.hr/clanak.aspx?id=323159 (accessed July 26, 2006).
67 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with an officer in the OSCE Field Sisak, June 6, 2006.
68 Human Rights Watch interview with Dragan Jerković, president of the Council of the Serb National Minority in Knin, May 12, 2006.