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Events of 2009

A halt until October in Croatia's negotiations to join the European Union, arising from a border dispute with Slovenia, and the unexpected resignation of Prime Minister Ivo Sanader in July, left the country in political limbo for much of 2009. Meanwhile, human rights reform took a back seat.

Croatia continues to prosecute suspected war criminals, but its inconsistent cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the disproportionate number of Serb defendants (many of them in absentia) remain of concern.

Persons with mental disabilities in Croatia are vulnerable to the denial of their rights, and disability law has been used to restrict liberties. Despite improvements, crucial safeguards are still lacking for asylum seekers and detained migrants. Threats to media freedom came increasingly from political interference in state media and pressure on journalists, rather than violent attacks.

War Crimes Accountability

The prosecution of Croatian generals Ante Gotovina, Ivan Cermak, and Mladen Markac at the ICTY continued during 2o09. The three are charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity arising from a 1995 military offensive against rebel Serbs. Croatian authorities continued to deny possessing key documents requested by the ICTY prosecutor. The European Commission called on Zagreb in October to take "all necessary steps" to resolve the issue.

The Supreme Court was scheduled to hear in November the prosecutor's appeal against the length of the seven-year sentence given in 2008 to Gen. Mirko Norac and the acquittal of Gen. Rahim Ademi on charges of war crimes against ethnic Serb civilians. The case is the first transferred to Croatia by the ICTY.

Serbs remain the majority of defendants in domestic war crimes prosecutions. In the first eight months of 2009, Croatian authorities issued eight new war crimes indictments against 16 individuals, 14 of whom were Serbs.

The first eight months of 2009 saw the completion of 20 war crimes trials in Croatia; of the 61 defendants involved in these trials, 37 were Serbs. Little over half of the defendants were present at trial, including 20 Serbs, many of them defendants in two cases before the Vukovar County Court. One of the Vukovar trials, running for more than four years, concluded in February 2009 with most defendants being convicted.

In May Croatian MP Branimir Glavas and five codefendants were found guilty of war crimes against Serb civilians and given sentences of five to ten years' imprisonment. On the day of the verdict Glavas, who has dual Croatian-Bosnian citizenship, fled to Bosnia. Croatia's extradition request was denied because Bosnia (like Croatia and Serbia) does not permit the extradition of its citizens. During 2009 there was no movement toward Croatia's facilitating the extradition of its citizens to neighboring states, despite Croatia having given a positive signal of this in 2008.

Serb Return and Integration

Internally displaced and refugee Serbs continue to face obstacles to sustainable return. In the first half of 2009, 456 refugees, all ethnic Serbs, returned to Croatia, and according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) 95 internally displaced persons (IDPs) returned to their homes in the same period, mostly ethnic Croats. Among the remaining 2,402 IDPs in Croatia, 1,638 are Serbs.

While government-sponsored programs continued to enable those who return to apply for and receive social housing, thousands of cases remained pending or had been refused as of September, and more than 2,000 persons approved had yet to receive homes. There was no progress toward compensating Serbs stripped during the war of the property right to occupy socially-owned housing.

There was positive movement in restoring occupied agricultural land to Serb owners. In April the government, former occupants, and current owners reached an out-of-court settlement restoring possession of 28 parcels of agricultural land to their Serb owners.

There was some progress in recognizing for pension eligibility wartime periods of work by Serbs in formerly rebel-held areas. As of August 2009, 55 percent of the 17,586 requests made had been processed, although barely half were resolved positively, in part because of disputes about admissible evidence.

Rights Abuses Related to Mental Disability

In December 2008 the European Court of Human Rights ruled in X v. Croatia that the country had violated the right to family life of a mentally disabled woman when its courts had her daughter adopted without the mother's involvement or consent.

Excessive and unnecessary forced institutionalization of people on the grounds of mental illness remains a paramount concern. The case of Ana Dragicevic, made public in 2009, is illustrative. Dragicevic was placed in a psychiatric hospital by her parents at age 16 in 2004, after they learned of her romantic relationship with another girl. She was released from the institution in May 2008 after an intervention by the State Attorney's Office, following a long campaign by the local media and a civil society organization. At this writing her civil claim for wrongful institutionalization is pending.

The treatment of people in mental health institutions is also of significant concern, with frequent reports of abuse and neglect. One such incident occurred in May 2009, when a young man at the Center for Autism in Zagreb received life-threatening burns from hot water while a member of the staff showered him. The staff member responsible was fired, and a criminal complaint filed in June by the victim's mother is pending at this writing.

Croatian NGOs working on disability issues continue to press the government to amend the official Croatian translation of article 19 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which erroneously allows confinement in a residential institution to be categorized as a "community living option."

Treatment of Asylum Seekers and Migrants

Croatia's treatment of asylum seekers and migrants continues to fall short of international and European standards. More asylum seekers were detained in 2009, according to UNHCR, despite fewer being charged with illegal entry. Asylum seekers and migrants held at the Jezevo Detention Center are unable to challenge their detention in a timely manner. Asylum seekers now are able to communicate through an interpreter at all stages of the procedure, but new arrivals at the border have inadequate access to an interpreter.

The refugee recognition rate remains extremely low: only one of 93 applicants in the first seven months of 2009 was granted.

Media Freedom

Concerns about political interference in the state media were highlighted in December 2008 when the host of a popular news program on state television, Denis Latin, lost his contract and was prohibited from appearing on other state shows, after he protested a decision by management to bar an investigative journalist from appearing on his program. Media freedom was under sustained pressure during 2009: Journalists investigating corruption and sensitive subjects were subject to threats, removal from their posts, or court action.

In February the interior minister, Tomislav Karamarko, brought a criminal case against journalist Zeljko Peratovic for "disseminating information likely to upset the population," after Peratovic accused him of obstructing an investigation into the death of a witness in a war crimes case. The charge carries a maximum sentence of one year in prison as well as a fine. The case is pending at this writing.

Physical attacks against journalists decreased in 2009, but limited progress was made in investigating murders and attacks on journalists from 2008. In separate investigations, Croatian prosecutors indicted six and Serbian prosecutors two individuals for the October 2008 killings of Ivo Pukanic, the editor of Nacional, and his marketing director, Niko Franjic. The police in Croatia have yet to identify any suspects in the June 2008 attack on the investigative journalist Dusan Miljus.

Human Rights Defenders

Personal attacks on human rights defenders in the state and commercially-owned media made the environment for human rights work in Croatia increasingly hostile, but groups remain free to operate.

Key International Actors

With final accession negotiations for membership scheduled to occur in 2010, the European Union remains the most influential international actor. For much of 2009 negotiations were stalled due to a border dispute with neighboring Slovenia, but this was near resolution in October when Slovenia removed its veto on Croatian membership.

The European Commission progress report released in October identified accountability for war crimes against Serbs, access to justice, and freedom of expression as areas where further progress is required. It concluded that since the last report there had been "no progress" on deinstitutionalization and community integration of people with mental health issues.

Croatia became a NATO member in April.