As Croatia moved closer to European Union integration, expected in July 2013, human rights protection dipped. Croatian authorities took a significant step towards improving domestic war crimes trials. Abuses against persons with disabilities continue. A housing program aimed at Serbs stripped of property rights during the war helped only two out of more than a thousand households that were eligible, while the asylum system remains unable to cope with growing arrivals, mainly from Afghanistan and Somalia.
Accountability for War Crimes
In November, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) appeals chamber overturned the 2011 convictions of two Croatian generals, Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac, for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed against Serbs in the Krajina region in 1995.
The trial at the ICTY of Croatian Serb wartime leader Goran Hadzic charged with the killing and deportation of Croats and other non-Serbs began on October 17. Hadzic is the last of 161 indictees to be brought before the tribunal as it winds down its operations.
Fifteen domestic war crimes prosecutions were transferred in late 2011 and early 2012 from local county courts to four courts designated for war crimes cases, with only two remaining in local courts as of August, the most recent data available at this writing. Following the transfer, the designated courts suspended several cases, particularly those affecting Serbs, because the trials had been conducted in absentia, a long-standing concern about war crimes cases heard in local courts.
In March, five former Croatian armed forces soldiers were arrested on suspicion of 1993 war crimes against Serbs during the Medak Pocket operation in the village of Medak, eastern Croatia. Three were released the next day after questioning, while the court released a fourth, Josip Krmpotic, in October pending a prosecution review of the indictment against him for allegedly ordering executions of four prisoners of war. To date, General Mirko Norac remains the only high-ranking official convicted of war crimes during the operation.
The presiding judge in the trial of Zeljko Gojak, convicted in February 2012 of war crimes near Karlovac in 1991, ruled that Gojak’s military service would not be used to reduce his nine-year sentence, a change to the judicial practice of considering participation in the Croatian armed forces as a mitigating factor in sentencing for war crimes.
The trial continued of Tomislav Mercep, the former police commander accused of having command responsibility for—and in some cases ordering—the illegal detention, torture, and killing of 53 Yugoslav Army soldiers in 1991. According to Croatian nongovernmental organizations, the Croatian government is paying for Mercep’s defense, totaling almost 400,000 Kuna (US$69,000) as of August, the most recent data available. Mercep was released from detention on medical grounds in July 2012.
Rights of Persons with Disabilities
In September, Ministry of Social Policy officials closed down a privately run state-funded social care home for people with mental disabilities following findings of severe abuse, including lack of food, use of solitary confinement, and inadequate sleeping facilities. The ministry moved all 129 residents to other institutions in Croatia.
There was virtually no progress implementing the government’s March 2011 master plan for deinstitutionalization. The number of people with intellectual or mental disabilities living in institutions remained steady at around 9,000, with a small increase in the number of places in community-based housing and support services (up to 425 from about 300 in 2010) for all people with disabilities. According to disability rights NGOs in Croatia, the government has directed greater resources to foster families for adults with disabilities, placements that may still amount to institutionalization.
Efforts by Croatia’s parliament to amend the country’s guardianship laws continued. But the proposed changes were limited to children, despite the need for reforms for almost 19,000 adults deprived of legal capacity at the end of 2011, including more than 16,000 deprived of all ability to make major life decisions.
Return and Reintegration of Serbs
Only 128 Serbs returned to Croatia during the last 6 months of 2011 and the first 6 months of 2012, down significantly from the 479 returns during the same period a year previously. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there were 2,059 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Croatia as of the end of 2011, but most IDPs are now settled in their new homes or are in the process of being settled.
More than two years after the start of a program permitting Serbs stripped of tenancy rights during the 1991-1995 war to buy apartments at discounts of up to 70 percent, only 2 out of a total 1,317 eligible households had completed a purchase as of September. The UNHCR attributed the low up-take to onerous application and administrative procedures. Work on a regulation to better implement the program, begun in July, was ongoing at this writing.
The government made some progress in providing public housing for returnees. Of 8,930 approved requests for such housing, 8,047 units had been allocated at the end of June 2012. There were 237 new applications approved from November 2011 to June 2012, the vast majority of which were from Serb families.
There was some progress in processing Serb pension eligibility claims for recognition of wartime work in formerly rebel-held areas. According to the UNHCR, 27,090 requests had been processed (up from 23,568 a year earlier) at the end of June, although only 55 percent were resolved positively (down from 57 percent). Despite a ruling from the Croatian Constitutional Court broadening the standard for admissible evidence to prove years of working service, the High Administrative Court, which adjudicates final appeals in such cases, continued to require registration in a pension fund as evidence of employment.
Asylum and Migration
The number of people seeking asylum in Croatia increased as the country moved closer to EU membership. There were 704 asylum applications in the first 9 months of 2012, compared to 807 applications in 2011. Croatia had granted 11 people asylum in 2012 and 6 subsidiary protection during that period, bringing the total granted international protection since 2004 to 64.
Croatia continued to lack sufficient reception accommodation for asylum seekers. The state does not provide free legal aid in first instance proceedings. But the main issues facing asylum-seekers and new refugees in Croatia continues to be the lack of services available for their employment, education, and integration, according to the UNHCR.
Systems to provide special assistance to the growing number of unaccompanied migrant children (173 in the first nine months of 2012) remained inadequate. Guardians appointed to all unaccompanied migrant children upon arrival in Croatia lack capacity and guidance on how to secure the best interests of their wards, with no provision for interpreters or legal assistance (other than for asylum appeals).
Freedom of Media
On September 14, the Dubrovnik County Court approved the extradition of Vicdan Özerdem, a Turkish journalist wanted on terrorism charges in Turkey, following her arrest in Dubrovnik. The Croatian human rights ombudsman wrote to the Ministry of Justice in September calling on it to halt the extradition, citing violations of the UN Convention Against Torture because of the risk Özerdem would be tortured if returned to Turkey. An appeal against the extradition order was pending at this writing.
In May, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) representative on freedom of media and the European Federation of Journalists expressed concerns about public television and radio station HRT conducting disciplinary proceedings and possibly dismissing Elizabeta Gojan, a journalist and Croatian Journalists’ Association board member. HRT’s actions followed an interview Gojan gave on German broadcaster Deutsche Welle criticizing the state of media freedom in Croatia.
Human Rights Defenders
In July 2012, the Human Rights Center and the People’s Ombudsman’s Office merged, after a law passed in 2011 to merge Croatia’s five national human rights institutions. The three other national human rights institutions (the ombudspersons’ offices for gender equality, children, and persons with disabilities) will remain separate until at least 2014 following a decision by the new government.
The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Pride March in Split went ahead in June without incident, after the 2011 march was marred by violence by anti-gay protesters.
Key International Actors
In January, the OSCE ended its Croatia presence after more than 15 years, following several years of winding down operations in the country, leaving a significant monitoring gap related to domestic war crimes accountability.
Croatia continued to proceed in negotiations to join the EU, slated for July 2013. The October 2012 EU monitoring report noted that Croatia needed to intensify efforts to tackle impunity for war crimes, protect Serb and Roma minorities, and ensure LGBT rights.
The Council of Europe’s (CoE) European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) released its fourth report on Croatia in September, noting positive developments in the impartiality of war crimes trials and investments related to property and pensions to promote the return and reintegration of Serbs. It noted that many Roma still lack citizenship or registration papers in Croatia, few attend secondary schools, and migrants and refugees face many barriers to integration.