Croatian cooperation with ICTY sparks rightist backlash

ZAGREB, Sep 15, 2000 -- (AFP) A radical change in Croatia's policy towards the United Nations war crimes tribunal has provoked violence by far-right extremists and threats of more to come.

A series of violent incidents culminated at the end of August in the murder of a war crimes witness who was accusing members of the Croatian army of committing atrocities against Serb civilians in 1991, at the beginning of the Serbo-Croatian conflict.

Prime Minister Ivica Racan recently told journalists that "in the coming period there will probably be attempts to escalate political terrorism in Croatia."

Racan's government, trying to end years of isolation caused by the former nationalist regime of Franjo Tudjman, pledged to cooperate with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).

The government's bid to back its words with action culminated in last Tuesday's arrest of two top army officers, linked to war crimes and terrorism, in a large-scale operation.

After the recent arrest of two Bosnian Croat war crimes suspects in Croatia, deputy prime minister Goran Granic said Zagreb wanted the ICTY to take over their cases, an initiative backed also by President Stipe Mesic.

Rightist groups reacted to the moves, saying they amounted to treason, and organized protests against cooperation with the ICTY while desecrating anti-fascist monuments.

The protest culminated in the murder of Milan Levar, a war crimes witness who was killed by an explosion at his home in Gospic.

"Levar is only one of many cases, but the first drastic one since the change of authorities (the presidential elections last February). Political violence is rather a constant here," Zoran Pusic, head of the Croatian Committee for Human Rights, told AFP.

"It is obvious that those who committed the crimes felt safe," Pusic said, recalling a long string of atrocities against Serb civilians in Croatia during the 1991-95 conflict.

In two 1995 military operations -- Flash and Storm -- in which Croatia recaptured breakaway Serb territories, some 120 to 400 Serb civilians were killed.

Twenty-five members of the Croatian army were tried, with only three suspects given suspended sentences.

According to Pusic, people in high positions who were involved in war crimes and who enjoyed impunity under the Tudjman regime, now fear they will be extradited to The Hague.

So far there have been no official indictments, but the media and Non-Govermental Organizations have named certain names, including some army generals.

Pusic did not rule out a scenario in which far-right groups would use violence to create uncertainty and chaos in the country, which is experiencing serious economic difficulties.

Pusic said he could not understand the new government's reluctance to act more firmly and its fears of being accused of "revanchism."

"We are all hostages and victims of another revanchism, the one of robbers and murderers, now that their patrons have been removed from power," Pusic said.

However, Slaven Letica, a sociologist, said that growing social apathy rather than terrorism was the biggest threat to Croatia, although he admitted the existence of rightist movements.

"The public in Croatia was always moderate, even during the (1991-95 Serbo-Croatia) war the extremist parties did not get more than four or five percent in the elections and this has not changed since," Letica said.

But he urged the government to react to the violence and promote Croatia as a modern country with an anti-Fascist tradition, so there would be no place for marginal extremists.

Original article