Wednesday, 13 February 2019

“President Tuđman Is a War Criminal” – 15 Days of Prison

ZAGREB, February 13, 2019 - The Zagreb Misdemeanour Court on Wednesday handed down a conditional prison sentence of 15 days against activist Zoran Erceg for disturbing the public order at a ceremony on December 10 at which a monument to Croatia's first president Franjo Tuđman was unveiled, but Erceg went to the monument after his sentencing despite a court ban.

Erceg will end up in prison if in the next 12 months he commits the same offence. Under the ruling, he is to pay 500 kuna in court costs and must not get close to the Tuđman monument in Zagreb for a year.

However, after the court handed down its sentence, Erceg went to the monument on Wednesday morning.

At the December 10 ceremony, which was attended by the entire state leadership, Erceg shouted, among other things, that Tuđman had destroyed Croatia and was a war criminal.

Addressing reporters after his sentencing, Erceg said that the judge had sentenced him to a longer term than had been recommended by the police and that there was no instrument of repression or punishment that would avert him from repeating in public what he had said.

Erceg's attorney Lina Budak said that the judge in charge of the case did not explain his verdict. "The court did not have the courage to explain its verdict thus violating my client's right to a fair trial and the public's right to see for itself that the court conducts fair trials," she said, adding that Erceg was sentenced for saying something the authorities believe he should not have said.

The nongovernmental organisations Documenta, the Centre for Peace Studies and the Civic Committee for Human Rights on Wednesday expressed concern about the ruling, noting that "the Croatian judiciary has failed to protect (Erceg's) right to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly."

"The free expression of a critical opinion at a rally that is held in a place where the highest state officials have gathered is a fundamental standard of a free and pluralist society," they said.

More news on the first Croatian President can be found in the Politics section.

Friday, 8 February 2019

NGO Files Unconstitutionality Complaint over Foster Care Act

ZAGREB, February 8, 2019 - The Rainbow Families civil society group, which brings together same-sex couples and LGBTI individuals who have children or want to become parents, has filed a complaint with the Constitutional Court asking it to assess if the new Foster Care Act is in line with the Constitution and calling for putting an end to discrimination against same-sex couples.

The Foster Care Act, in force since January 1, is discriminatory and paradoxical because it has left out same-sex couples from the definition of foster family despite numerous comments from experts and members of the public during the process of public consultation on the law, the association's coordinator, Daniel Martinović, told a news conference.

He warned that homosexuals can adopt and become foster parents if they are single but they cannot do so if they exercise their legal right to enter a life partnership. The same goes for bisexual persons, who can become foster parents if they are married but not if they live in a life partnership, Martinović said.

He added that the Foster Care Act also regulated the right to provide foster care for adults - elderly persons and persons with mental and other disorders - but that LGBTI persons in a life partnership could not apply to provide foster care even for the elderly members of their families.

The association's attorney, Zrinka Bojanić, said that if the Constitutional Court ruled that the current law was in line with the Constitution, interested couples would file individual lawsuits with the European Court of Human Rights.

"If that court rules that their rights have been violated, Croatia will have to amend its legislation to implement the ruling. That is the way national laws are changed in situations when politicians are incapable of doing it for various reasons," said the attorney.

More news on the human rights issues in Croatia can be found in the Politics section.

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Freedom House: Democracy in Croatia Is Deteriorating

ZAGREB, February 6, 2019 - Croatia is a free country but democracy in Croatia is deteriorating, according to the latest Freedom House report, which says that the state of democracy around the world has declined for the 13th year.

According to the US NGO which researches and supports democracy, freedom and human rights in the world, the highest freedom score in the Freedom in the World 2019 report was given to Norway, Sweden and Finland (100 out of 100 points), followed by the Netherlands and Canada (both 99), Australia and Ireland (both 98).

The NGO measures 25 indicators such as political rights, civil liberties, political pluralism, freedom of belief, and individual rights.

The report says the least free country in the world is Syria and, in Europe, Belarus and Russia.

The report shows that last year 44.1% of countries were free, 30.3% were partly free and 25.6% were not free.

Croatia's score is 85 out of 100 points, but it deteriorated, putting it alongside the US (86), Greece and Latvia (both 87), and Mongolia (85).

As for Croatia's neighbours, Slovenia was given free status (94 out of 100 points), while Hungary (70), Serbia (67), Montenegro (65), and Bosnia and Herzegovina (53) are partly free.

"In 2018, Freedom in the World recorded the 13th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. The reversal has spanned a variety of countries in every region, from long-standing democracies like the United States to consolidated authoritarian regimes like China and Russia. The overall losses are still shallow compared with the gains of the late 20th century, but the pattern is consistent and ominous. Democracy is in retreat," the report says.

More news on the human rights in Croatia can be found in the Politics section.

Friday, 28 December 2018

Zagreb Joins “Justice for David” Protests in Banja Luka

ZAGREB, December 28, 2018 - Thousands of members and sympathisers of the "Justice for David" group rallied in downtown Banja Luka, Bosnia and Herzegovina again on Thursday, despite a police ban, to demand the truth about the death of 21-year-old David Dragičević. A support event for the protests in Banja Luka was held in Zagreb.

The gathering was again led by David's father Davor. After police ordered them to move away or they would disperse them by force, he told the officers they could ban protesters from standing on a city square but not from taking a protest walk, which they proceeded to do, carrying lit candles and pictures of David, shouting "Justice" and "Murderers".

Davor Dragičević announced another big rally for Sunday a 6 p.m., saying he would then state a list of demands that would have to be met by January 9. "From then on, nothing will be the same," he said.

He criticised Bosnian Presidency Chairman Milorad Dodik, who earlier today blamed the escalating violence in Banja Luka on the local prosecutor's office and defended Interior Minister Dragan Lukač for sending police against the protesters on Tuesday. Dodik said the judiciary was to blame for the fact that David Dragičević's death has not been cleared up.

David Dragičević was found dead in the mouth of a tributary of the Vrbas River that runs through Banja Luka in March, a few days after he went missing in the night between March 17 and 18.

His father has initiated anti-government protests, insisting on a thorough investigation into his son's suspicious death. The investigation has been lasting for nine months. A protest held in Banja Luka on Tuesday resulted in police brutality and numerous arrests.

About 150 Zagreb residents rallied in a downtown square today in a show of support to the "Heart for David" initiative and the parents of the murdered youth as well as to show disapproval of police brutality in Banja Luka this week. They lit heart-shaped candles and demanded justice for David Dragičević and all murdered children.

Gordana Pasanac, one of the participants, said that by supporting the protests in Banja Luka, they "want to prevent the same from happening in Croatia too." She said the violence must end and that "the state must finally be on citizens' side, so that we are all equal under the law, so that not only the children of socially acceptable families are protected."

More news on the human rights issues in Croatia can be found in our Politics section.

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

Human Rights Watch: Croatia Pushing Migrants Back to Bosnia

ZAGREB, December 11, 2018 - Croatian police are pushing migrants to Bosnia and Herzegovina, in some cases violently, denying them the opportunity to apply for asylum, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Tuesday.

The New York-based organisation interviewed 20 people, including 11 heads of families and one unaccompanied boy, who said that Croatian police deported them to Bosnia and Herzegovina without due process after detaining them deep inside Croatian territory.

Sixteen of them, including women and children, said police beat them with batons, kicked and punched them, stole their money, and either stole or destroyed their mobile phones.

"Croatia has an obligation to protect asylum seekers and migrants," Lydia Gall, Balkans and Eastern EU researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in Budapest. "Instead, the Croatian police viciously beat asylum seekers and pushed them back over the border," she added.

All 20 interviewees gave detailed accounts of being detained by people who either identified themselves as Croatian police or wore uniforms matching those worn by Croatian police. Seventeen gave consistent descriptions of the police vans used to transport them to the border. One mother and daughter were transported in what they described as a police car. Two people said that police had fired shots in the air, and five said that the police were wearing masks.

These findings confirm mounting evidence of abuse at Croatia's external borders, Human Rights Watch said.

In December 2016, Human Rights Watch documented similar abuses by Croatian police at Croatia's border with Serbia. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported in August 2018 that it had received reports Croatia had summarily pushed back 2,500 migrants and asylum seekers to Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina since the beginning of the year, at times accompanied by violence and theft.

In response to a call by the Council of Europe's human rights commissioner to investigate the allegations, Prime Minister Andrej Plenković in September denied any wrongdoing and questioned the sources of the information, HRW said.

Police in Donji Lapac, on the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina, refused to provide Croatia's ombudswoman, Lora Vidović, access to police records on treatment of migrants and told her that police are acting in accordance with the law, HRW added.

In a December 4 letter, Interior Minister Davor Božinović responded to a detailed description of the Human Rights Watch findings. He said that the evidence of summary returns and violence was insufficient to bring criminal prosecutions, that the allegations could not be confirmed, and that migrants accuse Croatian police in the hope that it will help them enter Croatia. He said that his ministry does not support any type of violence or intolerance by police officers.

Croatia has a bilateral readmission agreement with Bosnia and Herzegovina that allows Croatia to return third-country nationals without legal permission to stay in the country. According to the Security Ministry of Bosnia and Herzegovina, under the agreement, between January and November 27, Croatia returned 493 people to Bosnia and Herzegovina, 265 of whom were Turkish nationals. None of the people Human Rights Watch interviewed underwent any formal return procedure before being forced back over the border.

The summary return of asylum seekers without consideration of their protection needs is contrary to European Union asylum law, the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, and the 1951 Refugee Convention, HRW noted.

The organisation called on Croatian authorities to conduct thorough and transparent investigations of abuse implicating their officials and hold those responsible to account. Authorities should ensure full cooperation with the Ombudswoman's inquiry, as required by national law and best practice for independent human rights institutions, it added.

The European Commission should call on Croatia, an EU member state, to halt and investigate summary returns of asylum seekers to Bosnia and Herzegovina and allegations of violence against asylum seekers. The Commission should also open legal proceedings against Croatia for violating EU laws, Human Rights Watch said.

As a result of the 2016 border closures on the Western Balkan route, thousands of asylum seekers were stranded, the majority in Serbia, and found new routes toward the EU.

In 2018, migrant and asylum seeker arrivals increased in Bosnia and Herzegovina, from fewer than 1,000 in 2017 to approximately 22,400, according to the European Commission. The Commission estimates that 6,000 migrants and asylum seekers are currently in the country. Bosnia and Herzegovina has granted international protection to only 17 people since 2008. In 2017, 381 people applied for asylum there.

Bosnia and Herzegovina has only one official reception centre for asylum seekers near Sarajevo, with capacity to accommodate just 156 people.

Asylum seekers and migrants in the border towns of Bihać and Velika Kladuša, where Human Rights Watch conducted the interviews, are housed in temporary facilities managed by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) – a dilapidated building, a refurbished warehouse, and former hotels – or they sleep outdoors.

The IOM and UNHCR have been improving the facilities. The EU has allocated over nine million euro to support humanitarian assistance for asylum seekers and migrants in Bosnia and Herzegovina. "Just because the EU is sending humanitarian aid to refugees in Bosnia and Herzegovina, that does not justify turning a blind eye to violence at the Croatian border," Gall said. "Brussels should press Zagreb to comply with EU law, investigate alleged abuse, and provide fair and efficient access to asylum."

HRW gave detailed accounts by 13 men, six women and a 15-year-old boy about their treatment by Croatian police.

More news on Croatia’s response to the migrant crisis can be found in our Politics section.

Monday, 10 December 2018

NGOs Worried about Deterioration of Human Rights in Croatia

ZAGREB, December 10, 2018 - NGOs promoting human rights on Monday warned of the deterioration of human rights in Croatia, saying ethnic and other minorities rights are increasingly in danger, as are women's rights as well as the rights of the majority which, due to poor social and economic conditions, cannot have a dignified life.

Speaking at a press conference, Ivan Novosel of the Human Rights House Zagreb underlined the importance of observing the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He said the stagnation of the development of the human rights in Croatia was evident since the country joined the EU in 2013.

"For several years now, Croatia hasn't had a key public human rights policy, a national human rights protection and promotion policy or a gender equality strategy. Especially worrying is the low level of knowledge about human rights because there's no systematic civic education," said Novosel.

Speaking of migrants, he said increasing hate speech contributed to the spreading of fake news. He said some politicians were using this to score points in the year before elections for the European Parliament and Croatia's presidential vote.

Ana Vračar of the BRID NGO said austerity measures were mostly reflected in social protection budget cuts and that this was often an obstacle to healthcare and dignified living. She said there was a trend of relying on uncertain jobs, that the pension reform would bring many to the risk of poverty and that healthcare was constantly under strong privatisation pressure. "All of that seriously undermines the majority's quality of living."

Svjetlana Knežević of the B.a.B.e. NGO said the human rights of the majority were increasingly threatened, not just those of minorities. She added that women must again fight for their rights, saying they were discriminated against at work, in politics, the economy, education, culture and as well as the family life.

Recent years saw "fierce attacks" on women's reproductive and sexual rights as well as conservative groups' resistance to the Istanbul Convention, she said, adding that women in the European Union earn 16.2% less than men, whereas in Croatia the pay gap is 11.3%, while the pension gap is over 20%.

Sara Lalić of the Centre for Peace Studies said refugees on the EU's and Croatia's borders were being illegally driven away on a daily basis, denied the basic human right to seek protection. She voiced concern about the low level of rights of the Serb and Roma ethnic minorities as well as the LGBT community, saying the state was not doing enough to protect the rights of children and persons with disabilities.

Željka Leljak Gracin of Green Action underlined the problem of climate change, saying the loss of natural resources was mostly felt by the poorer part of the population.

More news on the human rights in Croatia can be found in our Politics section.

Friday, 7 December 2018

Human Rights Advocates Facing Increasing Obstacles

ZAGREB, December 7, 2018 - Human Rights House Zagreb has published a report on the obstacles and challenges faced by human rights advocates and organisations in Croatia which deal with the past, transitional justice, human rights, refugee rights, ethnic minorities, the LGBTIQ community, and environmental protection.

The report says decision makers often fail to publicly support the work of human rights defenders, who are discredited, verbally threatened and intimidated, including with destruction of equipment and work premises.

"There is no public condemnation of threats against and intimidation of human rights defenders, whereby one fails to clearly send the message that violence is unacceptable," Human Rights House Zagreb said in a press release on Friday.

It notes that attempts are made through a broad interpretation of the law to criminalise the work of human rights defenders who deal with refugee rights, and that they are linked to people traffickers and criminal activities without foundation.

When they accompany asylum seekers to police stations, activists are interrogated and held there for hours without explanation or justification, said the press release. "Accusations of criminal activities are presented in the media tendentiously, undermining human rights defenders' reputations and discouraging future volunteers. Those who deal with environmental preservation face pressures and lawsuits from private investors because they attempt to protect the public interest."

The report says human rights defenders' communication with the public authorities is obstructed and that they are concerned about the deteriorating cooperation between defenders of refugee rights and the relevant authorities.

The report says the adoption of restrictive local regulations and commercial use of public space have a negative effect on the freedom of assembly. "Counter-protests have an indirect negative impact on the exercise of the right to free and peaceful public assembly of the defenders of the Serb national minority's human rights."

Human Rights House Zagreb also said that press freedoms were restricted and that fake news and hate speech had a negative impact on freedom of expression. It said human rights violations were not adequately covered and that independent media, which have a key role in the protection and promotion of human rights, found it increasingly difficult to survive due to lack of sustainable public funding.

"In 2018, aside from the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we are also observing the 20th anniversary of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders which defined in one place for the first time the minimum standards which states must honour to ensure undisturbed and progressive work on the protection and promotion of human rights," said the press release.

For more on the human rights in Croatia, click here.

Sunday, 2 December 2018

Pussy Riot to Give Performance in Zagreb on Monday

ZAGREB, December 2, 2018 - A multimedia show from the Russian punk activists Pussy Riot called "Riot Days" will be held in Zagreb on Monday, as part of the 16th edition of the Human Rights Film Festival.

The hallucinatory media comment on Vladimir Putin's Russia tells a story about present day Russia and gives voice to all those whom the repressive apparatus is trying to silence. According to critics, the show that is still being persecuted for anti-Putin protest is as funny as it is nerve-shredding.

Pussy Riot songs championed feminism and LGBT rights while lambasting inequality and oppression.

The Riot Days project is based on a book by Maria Alyokhina, a band member who was arrested for giving a “punk prayer” performance in an orthodox cathedral in Moscow in 2012, drawing international outrage and attention on how Russia treats its dissident artists.

Riot Days is directed by Yury Muravitsky, one of Russia's leading theatre directors.

For more on the human rights in Croatia, click here.

Saturday, 24 November 2018

Ombudswomen Support Allowing Foster Care by Same-Sex Couples

ZAGREB, November 24, 2018 - Ombudswomen for human rights, gender equality and children and the head of the government's Gender Equality Office on Friday welcomed a foster care bill aimed at deinstitutionalising children and adults, preventing institutionalisation and improving the quality of family foster care, but said that foster care by same-sex couples should also be allowed.

Gender equality ombudswoman Višnja Ljubičić sent her comments on the bill to its sponsor, applauding the bill, but during a public consultation she and other institutions, civil society organisations and citizens pointed out that life partners and informal life partners were left out of the definition of a foster family, her office said in a press release.

Ljubičić believes the exclusion denies those partners equal status and equal opportunities for the exercise of their rights, which is contrary to the gender equality principle. Since the Social Welfare Act speaks of accommodation in a foster family, which is not defined under said law but will be defined under the Foster Care Act, there is no reason not to include life partners and informal life partners among foster families, Ljubičić says.

She recalled that under the Life Partnership Act, a family is not composed only of married or common law couples but life partners and informal life partners as well.

Children's ombudswoman Helenca Pirnat Dragičević said the most important thing in protecting a child's best interest was to make sure that a foster family provided them with the best possible care. "It is therefore crucial to make a good evaluation of the competencies of foster parents, of their dedication and readiness to care for the child in a good and committed way. We don't doubt that same sex couples can provide a child with good care, i.e. the quality of care is not contingent on their sexual orientation," she added.

However, same sex couples still face very pronounced prejudices and sometimes extremely hostile views due to their sexual orientation, so in society we must work on preventing that, she said.

Human rights ombudswoman Lora Vidović's office told Hina they were in favour of allowing same sex life partners to be foster parents.

The head of the government's Gender Equality Office, Helena Štimac Radin, said the Office fully supported all rights of same sex couples. "Since we have the Registered Partnership Act, we in the Office believe those rights should be honoured, although said law is not in our remit," she added.

For more on the LGBT rights in Croatia, including the issue of foster care by same-sex couples, click here.

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Interior Ministry Rejects Accusations by Centre for Peace Studies

ZAGREB, November 13, 2018 - The Ministry of the Interior on Monday rejected the accusations by the Centre for Peace Studies (CMS) that the Ministry denied its volunteers access to the reception centre for asylum seekers in Zagreb.

The ministry dismissed as "completely untrue and unacceptable" the claim by the CMS that the ministry's refusal to renew the agreement on cooperation in providing support to seekers of international protection accommodated in the reception centre for asylum seekers is a political decision aimed at intimidating, marginalising and distancing an organisation that has drawn public attention to the unlawful treatment of refugees by police.

Given that the Centre for Peace Studies does not have a valid cooperation agreement with the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry cannot grant CMS volunteers entry to the reception centre for asylum seekers, the Ministry said in a statement.

The Ministry currently has cooperation agreements in place with the Jesuit Refugee Service, the Croatian Law Centre, Croatian Baptist Aid, the Baptist Church of Zagreb, and Are You Syrious.

Considering the reports submitted by the CMS about its activities, which included teaching Croatian and conversations with seekers of international protection, as part of which CMS volunteers informed them about the asylum system and integration, and having examined the valid agreements which the Ministry has in place with other non-governmental organisations and ongoing projects, it has been concluded that the CMS offers the same or similar activities that are already being conducted by the other organisations operating at the reception centre, the statement said.

The Ministry noted that assistance to asylum seekers was also secured through projects led by the Croatian Red Cross and the Belgian organisation Medecins du Monde.

The Centre for Peace Studies free to conduct its activities on its own premises

The Ministry said it was in no way trying to prevent the CMS from providing support to seekers of international protection and persons who have been granted protection, adding that the organisation was free to conduct its activities on its own premises.

Seekers of international protection are entitled to free public transport and their access to the CMS or contact with any other non-governmental organisation is in no way limited, the Ministry said.

The Ministry said it had never considered the CMS an undesirable partner, but added that insistence on the claim that the Ministry was responsible for the death of Afghan migrant girl Madina, despite the fact that a criminal complaint against unidentified border police officers was dismissed in June, was unacceptable.

In conclusion, the Ministry noted that this year alone it had received 998 claims for international protection and granted 226.

For more on Croatia’s NGOs, click here.

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