10 February 2011
Croatia: protect war crimes witnesses

During the 1991-1995 war between the Croatian Army and Croatian Serb armed forces, aided by the Yugoslav People’s Army, war crimes were committed by both sides. Twenty years later, many of the crimes remain unaddressed.

Prosecutions of war crimes have been taking place in Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague. 

In many cases justice for the victims served by the courts was only possible thanks to the courage of the witnesses who were determined to tell the truth about what happened during the war. Their testimonies have been crucial in bringing the perpetrators of war crimes to justice.

However, many of them have been exposed to threats and intimidation or even killed. In Croatia, the authorities have failed to protect the witnesses. By doing, so they have contributed to the atmosphere of fear, which prevents justice.   

Milan Levar was Croat. He was one of the few brave ones determined to tell the truth about war crimes committed against Croatian Serbs by his own, Croatian armed forces.

He was killed by a bomb placed under his car outside his house in Gospić, Croatia on 28 August 2000. Almost 11 years on and the perpetrator of this crime has not been yet brought to justice. 

Milan Levar was killed, because he had publicly campaigned for justice for victims of crimes committed during the 1991-1995 war in Croatia.  He volunteered for the Croatian Army in 1991 when the war started. According to reports, in 1992 he was ordered to round-up Croatian Serbs for execution which he refused. When the war ended he was contacted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague and interrogated as a potential witness in 1997 and 1998 in connection with war crimes committed in the Gospić area. He also helped collecting evidence and finding other witnesses who were then interviewed by the Tribunal. He was killed before he managed to give his testimony in the court room.

The investigation into Milan Levar’s death has been so far unsuccessful. The authorities have stopped informing his widow of the progress of the investigation. She herself has received death threats from unknown individuals on several occasions.

The lack of progress in the investigation shows the ongoing climate of impunity and a lack of political will in Croatia to deal with the past. This makes witnesses reluctant to testify in front of the Tribunal and the domestic courts in Croatia. In many cases witnesses have refused to testify citing fears for their safety as the main reason.

One of the concerns voiced by the witnesses is the prevailing impunity of the high profile military and political officials who were in position of power during the war. Despite the existence of publicly available information, including evidence from public court proceedings in Croatia, allegations against many of the officials have not been investigated.

Without evidence provided by witnesses it is impossible to prosecute many of the remaining war crimes cases, leaving the victims and their families without the possibility to receive justice.

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Croatia: protect war crimes witnesses

Dear Chief State Prosecutor,

I am concerned at the failure of the Croatian justice system to investigate and prosecute war crimes cases committed during the 1991-1995 war in Croatia. It is disturbing that almost 16 years after the end of the war, the number of war crimes investigations and prosecutions remains very low. This results in impunity for many of those crimes, leaving the victims and their relatives without access justice and reparation.

I understand that many of the war crimes cases remain unaddressed due to lack of evidence. On the other hand witnesses, who could provide necessary evidence through their testimonies, are reluctant to do so due to ongoing threats and intimidation against them.

I believe that the murder of Milan Levar in August 2000 has not been yet resolved. This is a matter of great concern. The fact that Milan Levar’s murderers remain unpunished sends a negative signal to all other potential witnesses.

Similarly, lack of investigations into allegations against current high profile military and political officials who were in position of power during the war adds to the climate of impunity. As a result witnesses are afraid to speak out and war crimes victims and their families are not allowed to receive long waited justice.

I therefore urge you to take a strong stand against impunity by:

- ensuring that those responsible for the murders of Milan Levar are finally brought to justice,

- urgently investigating allegations against current high rank officials who might have been involved in committing war crimes,

- ensuring that witnesses testifying in war crimes proceedings in Croatia are adequately protected and supported,

- investigating all outstanding cases of witness intimidation.

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