Monday, 18 April 2022

Šimonović Einwalter: System Must Change After the Verdict On Madina's Death

April 18, 2022 - Ombudswoman Tena Šimonović Einwalter believes that, after the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights that holds the Croatian government responsible for the death of little Madina Hosseini, the system must be changed to one that guarantees the security and respect for the human rights of the refugees who enter to Croatia. She points out, in relation to the current situation in Ukraine, that she would like a future response from the EU to be the same for all those escaping the horrors of war.

Ombudswoman Tena Šimonovic Einwalter said in an interview with Hina that, following the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in the death of Madina Hosseini, it is important to change the system because ''as a state we want to respect human rights. This is the complete opposite of what Prime Minister Andrej Plenković and the Croatian representative in the Strasbourg court, Štefica Stažnik, claim''. Namely, they both assure that this is not a systemic problem, because Croatia has not been declared responsible for the death of little Madina, but for an ineffective investigation into her death.

The six-year-old girl, Madina Hosseini was killed in November 2017 when she was hit by a train on the Croatian-Serbian border after her family had allegedly been denied the opportunity to seek asylum by Croatian authorities and were ordered to return to Serbia via the tracks.


Madina Hosseini (Photo: Family album)

The ECtHR confirmed that in Madina's case, Croatia had violated rights under the European Convention on Human Rights. As stated in the verdict, Madina's right to life, humiliated her family's children by keeping them in custody, illegally deprived the whole family of their liberty, and collectively expelled part of the family from Croatia and denied them access to a lawyer.

Why is this verdict significant?

In an interview with Hina, Ombudswoman Tena Šimonović Einwalter commented on the significance of the verdict itself and the moves that Croatia needs to make in order to execute the verdict of that court.

Speaking about the human rights situation, Šimonović Einwalter announced that, in addition to the annual report already published, she would soon present a special report to the Croatian Parliament on the impact of the epidemic in the last two years on human rights and equality.

HINA: The ECtHR passed a verdict deciding in this particular case, but can it be said that it also said that Croatia is systematically violating the rights of refugees at the borders?

ŠIMONOVIC EINWALTER: It is difficult for the ECHR to say that in that way, in those words. This verdict addresses the issue of the treatment of Madina's family, in this specific situation. But the court also says that the case "raises several important issues about migration control by the Croatian authorities" and that "the impact of this case goes beyond the special situation of the family". The court also took into account a number of earlier allegations of violations of migrants' rights.

Some sentences from the decision, it seems to me, therefore indicate that the impact of the case goes beyond this particular family situation and I think it is good to read it that way if we want changes. It is important to carefully analyze and seriously implement this court decision and change the system because as a state we want to respect national law, European law, international law, and human rights. Is there the will to do it? I really hope so.

HINA: The court found that the convention had been violated because the police at the border did not assess the individual situation of the refugee family before they were deported to Serbia. It did not accept the state's argument that the refugee family was crossing the border illegally. What does this mean now, since the beginning of that refugee crisis, it has been persistently emphasized that we are "defending" ourselves at the borders from those who break the law by crossing them?

ŠIMONOVIĆ EINWALTER: In fact, the legal situation was clear even before this decision. It is often pointed out that the police should guard the border, that illegal crossing of the state border is prohibited, and that is exactly what the law says. At the same time, it is legally defined that persons have the right to seek international protection, regardless of the manner of entry into the country. Therefore, there must be an individualized procedure. It includes, because of the risk of violating international law, the possibility that people who are in a specific situation because of fleeing war and exposure to practices such as torture or the death penalty in their countries of origin have the right to seek international protection. It is also needed by people who are victims of human trafficking, rape, or severe violence.

You can't know if that person will have the right to asylum without conducting a procedure - to ask who that person is, where he is fleeing from and why, it is not written on anyone's forehead. As a first contact, officials should try to identify vulnerable people who may want to apply for international protection.

This is a matter of individualized approach, where special vulnerability is sometimes visible at first, for example in children or unaccompanied children, and the best interests of the child must take precedence.


Tena Šimonović Einwalter (Photo: Zeljko Hladika/PIXSELL)

HINA: In the next six months, Croatia must conduct an effective investigation into Madina's death, but also draw up an action plan to eliminate the violations identified by the court. Will this change the situation and the protocol for treating refugees?

ŠIMONOVIĆ EINWALTER: Within six months, but maybe earlier, the Office of the Representative of the Republic of Croatia before the ECtHR must adopt an action plan. In this regard, through a body in which representatives of various institutions participate, we can also give expert opinions and proposals, and it includes ministries, courts, the Constitutional Court, and others. The point of the ECtHR judgments is justice for individuals, but also to change the practice, if necessary the laws, in order to respect the legal standards of human rights protection. It can also be a question of, for example, how to conduct an effective investigation, which was an important issue in this case. We have also heard that Minister Davor Božinović has publicly stated that the responsibility in such cases is on the system and that we need to see what are the things that can and should be corrected.

HINA: Has the Ukrainian crisis shown that those fleeing the war can be treated differently?

ŠIMONOVIĆ EINWALTER: We are currently witnessing great solidarity of citizens towards Ukrainians, but I would like to remind you that we saw this solidarity of citizens in 2015 as well - and then many were ready to help. However, now the European Union has reacted differently than in 2015. The Temporary Protection Directive existed even then, and could theoretically be activated. It is a political decision at the EU level.

With the recent activation of the directive, IDPs from Ukraine have a much simpler and faster procedure. What can be discussed is whether it should have been activated in the past. Could it have been any different for some other people fleeing another war? I believe that a new level of solidarity and assistance to refugees is now being seen. In an ideal world, I would like to see Europe respond in this way to all refugees fleeing the horrors of war.

HINA: Your report makes recommendations on how to address the shortcomings you have identified in the implementation of human rights. Judging by the number, a total of 156 recommendations, a lot of work, what needs to be worked on the most?

ŠIMONOVIĆ EINWALTER: There are many problems, and I would like to point out the problems of access to health care and health services, the need for stronger support and protection of senior citizens, the issue of access to information for citizens regarding rights, and how to exercise them. It is necessary to ensure that the institutions suit them, that the procedures do not take too long, that they are less formalistic, and that their work shows the understanding that they are there for the citizens, to provide them with an easier way to exercise their rights. In some areas, the problems are long-lasting, I have been working in this institution for 14 years and changes are happening slowly.

We also point out systemic problems analytically and comprehensively. What I am always happy about are the improvements, and of course, there are some, especially when fulfilling some of our recommendations, either in an individual case or these systematic ones from the annual report, lead to a higher level of rights for citizens. That is the point of these recommendations. From the Report for 2020, 43 percent of the recommendations were implemented, which is a big jump compared to 2019, when 20 percent of them were implemented. I hope this trend continues.

HINA: In times of insecurity, the most socially vulnerable groups are particularly hard hit. How should the state act on this?

ŠIMONOVIĆ EINWALTER: Those who have been ill before always suffer the most. It will be the same now - it is the poorer senior citizens, but also those who live near the poverty line. Single-parent families and those with three or more children are in a difficult position.

Government measures to alleviate the situation are welcome, but they will certainly not remove all concerns from citizens. It is important to monitor at the state level whether the measures should be corrected, with special attention to the impact on those who find it particularly difficult, and we will monitor this as well.

HINA: A large number of complaints were related to the use of covid certificates and vaccinations. How has the epidemic affected equality and human rights in Croatia?

SIMONOVIC EINWALTER: We have been through a lot in these two years. The epidemic is still actually going on, so while many of us are feeling relieved, no one knows what will happen in the fall. These experiences should be used to learn and strengthen the key sectors: health, social, education, and civil protection. We are currently finalizing a special report on the impact of the epidemic on human rights and equality in those two years, which we will soon submit to Parliament. The purpose of this report is to see what the effects of the epidemic are and how to manage it. It has changed our lives and we need to see what can be done better and differently.

That is why we analyze the impact on certain human rights and certain groups of citizens because some have fared worse. These are the elderly, but they are not the only ones. There is also the impact of poverty and the availability of different services. The fact is that not everyone could be vaccinated, for health reasons, and at the same time, we had the question of the availability of testing, which was not the same for everyone. There are also lessons about informing citizens, given the fake news and misinformation. We will include all of this in the recommendations, and I hope that this report will be the basis for positive progress towards strengthening the resilience of society in the future, to the epidemic, but also to other possible crises.

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Saturday, 27 November 2021

Ombudswoman: We Must Not Be Enemies to One Another, Virus Is the Enemy

ZAGREB, 27 Nov, 2021 - Ombudswoman Tena Šimonović Einwalter on Saturday strongly condemned calls for violence that could be heard at a protest against the COVID-19 certificate mandate last weekend, stressing that citizens must not be enemies to one another because coronavirus and the pandemic are the enemy.

Speaking in an interview with Croatian Radio, Šimonović Einwalter said that violence  definitely must not be a way to deal with problems.

Citizens are tired, dissatisfied, frustrated and want this situation to be over as soon as possible and one should have understanding for that, she said, adding that the right to assembly was guaranteed by the Constitution, laws and international treaties but that gatherings must be peaceful and not violent.

"What we witnessed was an attack on reporters, calls for violence, war, formation of a military unit - those are extremely serious things that worry me," she said, stressing that one should most strongly condemn calls for violence.

"Citizens must not be enemies to one another in this situation, the virus and the pandemic are the enemy. More responsibility and more solidarity is needed in the fight against the pandemic," she said.

COVID-19 certificates are an instrument that is far from being perfect and citizens have the right to question and critically think about them just as they have the right to question any decision made by the government, she said.

Commenting on plans to collect signatures for a referendum on the abolishment of COVID-19 certificates and on the work of the national COVID-19 response team, Šimonović Einwalter said that the Constitutional Court should state its position on the constitutionality of referendum questions before the collection of signatures starts, to avoid polarisation in society.

"It would be much better to know in advance, before the entire referendum process is set in motion, if a referendum question is in line with the Constitution," she stressed, calling for making changes in that regard.

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Sunday, 21 November 2021

Ombudswoman Deplores COVID Demonstrators’ Assaults Against Reporters

ZAGREB, 21 Nov, 2021 - Ombudswoman Tena Šimonović Einwalter on Saturday evening condemned in the strongest terms the violence and assaults against TV crews that were covering the march organised by anti-vaccine certificate protesters in Zagreb earlier in the day.

Šimonović Einwalter said in a press release that she condemned attempts by demonstrators to prevent reporters from doing their job while they were covering the rally in Zagreb's main square.

She also urges the authorities, including the law enforcement authorities and the Office of the Chief State Prosecutor (DORH), to thoroughly investigate the incidents and violence so that perpetrators can be held to account. In this way, the society will receive an unequivocal message about zero tolerance to violence against anybody, particularly against persons who do their job in the interest of the public, Šimonović Einwalter said.

The freedom of expression and particularly the freedom of he press is guaranteed by the constitution, she recalls.

Freedom of assembly and the right to to peacefully assemble do not exclude other human rights and they also do not justify verbal, physical and other violence, she writes in the press release.

A reporter of the RTL commercial broadcaster, Goran Latković, was attacked by two unidentified persons from behind as he was covering the rally, and they slapped him across the face twice, while a third person hit him in the rib cage.

Also, Nova TV and HTV crews were verbally assaulted at the rally, while a group of protesters took Al Jazeera reporter Nikolina Zavišić's microphone as she was reporting live.

On Saturday evening a group of protesters moved from Zagreb's central square to the part of the city where the HRT public broadcaster is located, demanding to see the HRT director and have their rally covered live and calling for an end to "censorship" by the HRT.

Dissatisfied with the way the HRT covered their protest in the central city square at 3 p.m., the protesters shouted "We want elections", "Referendum and people's rule", "Thieves", "Treason", "God's law is above all laws", demanding to see the HRT director and have their rally covered live. "This is no vaccine, this is poison", someone in the crowd could be heard saying while some protesters said the world was ruled by "Bill Gates, Talmudists and Soros's followers".

The protesters were met by riot police, with a dozen police vehicles blocking access to the HRT building.

Violence against reporters condemned by office-holders, associations, political parties

The Croatian Journalists Association (HND) and the Croatian Journalists Union (SNH) on Saturday strongly condemned an attack on RTL reporter Goran Latković at the protest, demanding a prompt police investigation and calling on the government to unequivocally condemn the incident.

The attacks by protesters on media workers were also condemned by the government spokesman, the minister of culture and the Office of the President.

The Istrian Democratic Party (IDS) said on Saturday evening that the freedom to assembly did not include the right to violence and said that the attacks against reporters "resemble dark times" and called on all the political parties to stand up for the protection of the journalistic profession."

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Saturday, 27 March 2021

Public Ombudswoman: Reports Are Like a Physical, Sometimes it's Not Pleasant

ZAGREB, 27 March 2021- The new Public Ombudswoman Tena Šimonović Einwalter has said that she regrets the parliament's still not having discussed three annual reports in her office, comparing those reports to a physical, which, she says, is sometimes unpleasant but shows what needs to be fixed.

She says that police conduct towards migrants is a severe problem in Croatia and other EU countries and stresses that prosecutorial authorities must investigate all complaints.

Šimonović Einwalter says that her predecessor Lora Vidović has done an excellent job.

She also condemns out-of-turn vaccination against COVID-19 and believes that the process of post-earthquake reconstruction is too slow and hampered by excessive red tape.

Asked how she explains the fact that the parliament has still not discussed reports by her office for the last three years, she says that she does not know why there has been no discussion about the accounts for 2018 and 2019, but that she will see to it that no longer happens because those reports are like a physical, which one should undergo regularly.

Sometimes a physical is not pleasant, but it points to problems that we as a state need to deal with more, and it shows which areas need additional checks and what the therapy is. That needs to be taken seriously. One has to do what needs to be done, Šimonović Einwalter says, noting that the question as to why the previous reports have not been discussed yet should be put primarily to the parliament.

"I must warn about the repercussions of their not being discussed, the main one being a decrease in the rate of acceptance and implementation of the office's recommendations, from 67% in 2017 (the parliament discussed report for that year) to around 20% for accounts from 2018 and 2019, which have not been consulted on time."

Asked if the parliament should vote on the Public Ombudswoman's reports, she said that considering the practice in other European countries, it should not, as such statements were rarely put to the vote in other European countries. The parliament should discuss those reports, but an option is not necessary. They are not laws that need to be adopted but reports by an independent institution on the human rights situation, with recommendations that need to be discussed and applied.

Asked about some MPs describing her predecessor Lora Vidović as ideologically biased and as having leveled unfounded accusations against police over their treatment of migrants, Šimonović Einwalter said that the office deals with human rights, prevention of discrimination, equal access to justice, the rule of law, and promotion of laws and legal practice and that she intends to do just that.

She said that she was aware that there were different views on some controversial issues but that she hoped that future discussions on her reports in the parliament would focus on issues of importance to citizens and that politics would be understood as work for the familiar good party one-upmanship.

Asked about objections that Vidović dealt too much with the Ustasha salute "For the homeland ready" and singer Marko Perković Thompson compared to other problems that she had detected, Šimonović Einwalter said that Vidović had done an excellent job, setting priorities according to what she believed were essential problems.

Some topics are imposed by a particular time and specific events, noting that media, too, were interested more in particular issues, which could cause an impression that only those topics were being addressed.

That is one more reason to present the public ombudswoman's reports in the parliament and have them discussed so that the scope of problems citizens encounter can be seen.

The 2020 report of the Office of the Public Ombudswoman again cites complaints about the police treatment of migrants, including one cruel act, and says that the Office of the Chief State Prosecutor (DORH) did not act on any of those reports.

Asked about this, Šimonović Einwalter said that the treatment of migrants is a severe problem, not only in Croatia but also in the EU.

The Office of the Public Ombudswoman does not have information that DORH has acted on the complaints reported in the 2020 report, except in a case concerning Nigerian students (who arrived in Croatia for a sports competition, claimed that they had student visas but were deported by Croatian police to Bosnia and Herzegovina). Croatia should investigate cases that may constitute a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights. This should be done by DORH regardless of who may be responsible for the offense, she said.

Asked about the public perception that the Office of the Public Ombudswoman constantly suspects police and that citizens seem to trust the police more than the ombudswoman, Šimonović Einwalter said that this was not a matter of whom to trust, but rather that investigations had to be carried out to see what had happened.

We want access to information on police conduct towards migrants as we do in cases of other people. What we insist on is an independent investigation in cases of complaints concerning police conduct, she said.

I think that it is absolutely the police force's role to protect the border, which citizens agree with. Still, I also believe that most citizens would decide that they do not want police to beat and abuse migrants and foreign media to report that, Šimonović Einwalter said, adding that that was why a proper investigation was crucial.

They asked about the ongoing campaign of vaccination against COVID-19. If it was good that politicians got vaccinated first, Šimonović Einwalter said that the public vaccination of ministers and MPs at the start of the vaccination campaign made sense as its purpose was to encourage people to get vaccinated.

The situation has changed since due to interest in vaccination exceeding the available amount of vaccines, she said, adding that she condemned the behavior of those who used their office to get vaccinated out of turn.

The lack of transparency, wherever there is a lack of transparency, is abuse, she said.

Asked about the main problems faced by citizens whose properties were damaged in last year's earthquakes, notably in Zagreb, Šimonović Einwalter said that Zagreb's changes were too slow, and people mainly complained about excessive red tape in the process of reconstruction. Some positive steps have been made, she said, about an e-system enabling the faster collection of documents required for post-earthquake reconstruction but added that the process was still very complicated and slow.

One year after the Zagreb earthquake, some people from Čučerje and Markuševec (where the epicenter of the earthquake was) still live in housing containers and hostels, and reconstruction will not be completed soon, she said.

Asked about objections that her office has too many employees, 53, Šimonović Einwalter said that the office had the mandates to act as the office of the public ombudsman, the national institution for the protection of human rights, the central body for the prevention of discrimination, the national mechanism for the supervision of prisons, penitentiaries, and psychiatric institutions, and the institution protecting whistle-blowers.

If that is taken into account, the number of employees is not high, she said.

Asked if her office had wrapped up the procedure in the case of a Rijeka cafe owner who recently said that members of the ruling HDZ party were not welcome in his establishment, Šimonović Einwalter noted that the procedure was being finished and that the office would soon finalize its opinion.

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Friday, 19 March 2021

Tena Šimonović Einwalter Elected Public Ombudswoman

ZAGREB, 19 March, 2021 - Lawyer Tena Šimonović Einwalter is the new Public Ombudswoman, the Croatian parliament decided on Friday by secret ballot.

A total of 115 MPs voted for her election, while the other candidate, lawyer Sandra Hančić, received the support of one MP, Deputy Speaker Željko Reiner said.

Šimonović Einwalter, elected for a term of eight years, was since 2013 a deputy to Public Ombudswoman Lora Vidović, whose term expired on 1 March and who did not apply for re-election.

Five candidates had applied for the post, and after one candidate was eliminated for not having complete documentation, the remaining four were interviewed and Šimonović Einwalter and Hančić were proposed to the parliament.

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Wednesday, 10 March 2021

Parliament Discusses Candidates for Public Ombudsman

ZAGREB, 10 March, 2021 - The Croatian parliament on Wednesday discussed a proposal by the Committee on the Constitution, Standing Orders and Political System to nominate attorney and judge Sandra Hančić and Deputy Public Ombudswoman Tena Šimonović Einwalter for the post of Public Ombudsman.

Several opposition party groups expressed dissatisfaction that Public Ombudswoman Lora Vidović's reports for 2018 and 2019 had still not been discussed.

Nino Raspudić of the Bridge party warned about what he called a huge increase in the budget of the ombudswoman's office, saying it had doubled since 2008, as well as about an increase in the number of staff.

He proposed reducing the term of the public ombudsman from eight to five years and that the official should be elected by a two-thirds majority in the parliament.

That way one would not elect a para-political person, said Raspudić, adding that outgoing Public Ombudswoman Lora Vidović had not dealt with issues she should have dealt with and that she made her views clear when she opposed the 2013 referendum on marriage as a union of man and woman.

Dalija Orešković (Centar, GLAS) warned about growing social inequality and what she described as the shameful treatment of the office of public ombudswoman, whose reports for 2018 and 2019 had still not been discussed by the parliament. The Public Ombudswoman has protected public interest and not the interests of the HDZ, Orešković said, accusing the ruling party of destroying the country and causing its people to emigrate.

She dismissed Raspudić's claim that Vidović was a para-political figure.

The declining number of applications for the post shows that candidates do not see any prospects there, she said.

Ružica Vukovac of the Homeland Movement warned that MPs were only given short biographies of the candidates, who were not presented in the parliament.

Vesna Nađ (SDP) said that her party preferred Šimonović Einwalter, noting that it was not good that the public ombudswoman's reports for 2018 and 2019 had not been discussed.

Damir Habijan of the HDZ said the office of the public ombudsman was undoubtedly important and that the candidates had answered all questions put to them by two parliamentary committees.

The public ombudsman is expected to advocate and protect the rights and freedoms defined by the Constitution and international treaties, and the HDZ will make a decision on which candidate to support when the vote is taken, he said.

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