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Posts tagged ‘Adriatic Land of Croatia’

Leaders of Romania, Croatia want a one-speed Europe

October 02, 2017

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — The presidents of Romania and Croatia have called for an end to the differences between older and newer European Union members. Some newer EU members are frustrated they do not enjoy the same benefits as older EU members. Many East European members do not use the euro.

Klaus Iohannis said he and Croatian President Kolinda Gabar-Kitarovic agreed Monday on “an elimination of differences between different states (which is) very important,” Iohannis said. Grabar-Kitarovic said she opposed “a two-speed Europe,” after talks with Iohannis. She said Romania and neighbor Bulgaria, both EU members, deserve to be members of the visa-free Schengen travel zone.

She also said Romania and Bulgaria, members since 2007, should no longer be subjected to a process that monitors whether they implement reforms.

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Ex-rebel Serb commander sentenced to 15 years in Croatia

September 26, 2017

ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) — A Croatian court on Tuesday sentenced a former Serb paramilitary commander and Australian citizen to 15 years in prison for war crimes in the 1990s, including the killing and torture of prisoners.

Judges at the municipal court in the coastal town of Split said that Dragan Vasiljkovic, also known as Captain Dragan and Daniel Snedden, is guilty of war crimes committed while he commanded Croatian Serb rebels during the 1991-95 war when Serbs took up arms against Croatia’s secession from Yugoslavia.

The 62-year-old Vasiljkovic, who was born in Serbia, went to Australia as a teenager, but returned to the Balkans to train Croatian Serb rebels in 1991. In Australia, he was an army reservist and a golf instructor.

Vasiljkovic was extradited from Australia in July 2015 after a 10-year legal battle against being handed over to Croatia’s judiciary. He became Australia’s first extradited war crimes suspect. The three-judge Croatian court panel found Vasiljkovic guilty of two of the three charges, which included torturing and beating imprisoned Croatian police and army troops and commanding a special forces unit involved in the destruction of Croatian villages. He was found responsible for the death of at least two civilians.

“They were beating prisoners with their guns, … pushing gun barrels into their mouths,” judge Damir Romac said reading the verdict. “He (Vasiljkovic) did nothing to prevent this and punish the perpetrators.”

About 60 prosecution witnesses were questioned during the trial, including those who said they were tortured by Vasiljkovic. Vasiljkovic, who was widely believed during the war to be working for Serbia’s secret service, has claimed innocence throughout the one-year trial, saying the whole process was rigged.

“This is an oppressive fascist process,” Vasiljkovic said during his closing statements last week. “Not only did I not commit any crimes that I am charged with, I can only ask why I was brought here and charged in the first place.”

Serbia’s Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin blasted Vasiljkovic’s conviction as a “mockery of truth.” Vulin accused Croatia of fueling tensions in the Balkans with the ruling. The judges ruled that they will take into account the time Vasiljkovic served in detention in Australia and in a Croatian prison, meaning he has three-and-a-half years of his sentence remaining. His lawyers said they will appeal.

Associated Press writer Dusan Stojanovic contributed from Belgrade, Serbia.

Migrants claim violence while pushed back from Croatia

September 01, 2017

SID, Serbia (AP) — Hamid Barekzai desperately tried to cross into Croatia 17 times in one year. He says he was beaten and humiliated during most of his attempts, but the Afghan migrant isn’t about to give up on his goal of getting deeper into Europe.

International rights groups say there is enough evidence that Croatian police for months have been forcing migrants and asylum-seekers back across the border to neighboring Serbia, in some cases using violence, taking their money and breaking their cellphones, without giving them an opportunity to file claims for protection.

Croatian officials have denied the groups’ claims, but refugees interviewed by The Associated Press last week described how they were forced back. Croatian police didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment from The Associated Press.

“I tried to enter Croatia 17 times. Out of 17 times, they beat me nine times and they took everything from me,” Barekzai, the 24-year-old from Afghanistan, said at a crowded refugee center in Serbia only a few kilometers (miles) from the Croatian border where people sleep in tents often visited by rats at nighttime.

“We will not stay here. We will go. If they beat, if they kill, anything they do, we will go, we will not stay. What should we do here? Here, there is no future,” said Barekzai, who said he has a degree in medicine.

A huge wave of refugees on the so-called Balkan route subsided after Hungary and other countries along the route closed their borders to migrants in March 2016. That left thousands stranded in Serbia, including women and children, who sometimes had to sleep out in the open, exposed to the extreme weather.

With Hungary’s right-wing government sealing off its border with Serbia with a double razor-wire fence, the stranded migrants have no choice but try to enter the European Union via Croatia in an attempt to reach Germany, Sweden or other more prosperous central and northern European countries.

Germany took in the bulk of over a million asylum-seekers in 2015 and 2016, in stark contrast to Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia or other central or eastern European states which refuse to host migrants under the EU’s programs to allocate 160,000 people stranded in Greece, Italy and the Balkans.

Many EU states, including Croatia, have dragged their feet and only about 18,000 people have been moved under the plan that expires in September. One of the arguments is that allowing entry would jeopardize Europe’s security, although most recent attacks in Europe have been linked to home-grown extremists.

In its report, Human Rights Watch said the violence and summary return of asylum-seekers from Croatia without consideration of their protection needs is contrary to EU asylum laws, the bloc’s charter on fundamental rights, and the international Refugee Convention.

“The fact that this type of flagrant abuse of migrants and asylum-seekers is allowed to go on at EU’s borders is completely unacceptable and flies in the face of EU and international law,” said Lydia Gall, Balkans and Eastern Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch.

The stranded migrants interviewed by the AP in Serbia described their dangerous journeys across the border. “Yesterday I came back from Croatia. They (police) beat us and took 900 euros and he (a policeman) took our phones and broke them. After that, he slapped me and he behaved very badly with us,” said Haider Zaman Khan from Pakistan.

Abdul Jabbar from Afghanistan said he tried to cross into Croatia three times and was beaten once. “The second time I went with my friend. We paid taxi to Zagreb 200 euros,” he said. Instead of taking them about 300 kilometers (190 miles) to the Croatian capital, he said the taxi driver took them straight to a nearby police station.

“The police beat us, they broke our mobiles and sent us back to the border,” he said. Serbian officials and doctors in the Adasevci refugee camp said that migrants regularly return from Croatia with bruises and sometimes broken limbs.

On the Serbian side of the border, hundreds of migrants — who refuse to be registered by local authorities because of fears they would be deported — sleep out in the open in cornfields, forests and an abandoned, roofless printing factory littered with garbage and toxic waste.

The only aid this group has comes from young activists from Spain and Germany, who provide them with food and water. “There are now around 150-200 people here without any legal status, trying to cross the border again and again,” said Max Buttner of the German Rigardu non-governmental organization, which put makeshift showers inside the factory where mostly young men shaved or had a haircut as Arab folk songs blared from a transistor radio.

“It started a few months ago when they stared coming back from the border with injuries,” Buttner said. “They were beaten by the police often with sticks.” Rigardu has documented numerous cases of purported violence by Croatian police after migrants got caught while crossing the border from Serbia on cargo trains or on foot through thick forest.

In one case, a 17-year-old Algerian boy was thrown to the ground, hit with batons and kicked in his head until “he lost his consciousness completely,” the volunteer group’s report said. “This morning, a group came back from Zagreb. So, even when they make it to Zagreb or (further west) to Slovenia, people are deporting them back to Serbia because it is outside of the EU,” Buttner said.

As he spoke, a Libyan man came limping into the factory and started bandaging his swollen ankle which he said he sustained from a baton hit by a Croatian policeman. A small crowd gathered around Ahmed Ali who said he’s just back from what migrants call “the game” — an attempt to outplay the Croatian border police, like in a computer game.

“They won today, but tomorrow is another game,” he said.

Croatia holds snap vote with no clear winner in sight

September 11, 2016

ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) — Croatian citizens were voting Sunday in an early parliamentary election that is unlikely to produce a clear winner and could pave the way for more political uncertainty in the European Union’s newest member state.

The second vote in less than a year was called when a previous, right-wing government collapsed in June after less than six months in power, paralyzed by bickering within the ruling coalition. Political deadlock has delayed reforms that are necessary for Croatia to catch up with the rest of the EU. It has also fueled nationalist rhetoric amid heightened tensions with Serbia — its former Balkan war foe.

Opinion polls suggest that neither the conservative Croatian Democratic Union, known as HDZ, nor the left-leaning Social Democrats and their People’s Coalition, will win enough votes to rule alone, though the leftist alliance has been projected taking a slight lead.

This means that that some of the smaller groups could play the role of kingmakers, as was the case with the Most group in the previous government. Some analysts have predicted that Croatia’s next government could take months to form and end up as weak as the previous one.

Croatia had tilted to the right under the HDZ-led government that took over following the inconclusive vote last November. However, in the past weeks it has sought to remake its image as a centrist party under new leader Andrej Plenkovic.

The more moderate leader, who took over from right-leaning Tomislav Karamarko earlier this summer, said Sunday he expects high turnout among Croatia’s nearly 3.8 million voters. “We are happy,” Plenkovic said upon casting his ballot. “It’s a beautiful day, so I expect the turnout to be bigger than if it was rainy.”

HDZ and the Social Democrats have been the two dominant parties in Croatia since the country split from former Yugoslavia in 1991. The Social Democrats, led by former Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic, were in power for four years until last November.

Although more advanced than other Balkan countries, Croatia has one of the weakest economies in the EU following years of crisis after the split from former Yugoslavia and the 1991-95 war. After a six-year recession, Croatia has shown signs of recovery with reported growth of more than 2 percent. However, unemployment hovers around 14 percent — among the highest in the EU — and much of the fiscal growth is attributed to tourism along Croatia’s Adriatic coast.

Kristijan Naher, a voter from Zagreb said he hopes Croatians “will be smarter now” and vote conclusively to “avoid the agony” that followed the last election. Zagreb resident Jelena Micic said she was hopeful things would improve.

“I think we are moving toward a better future for Croatia,” Micic said.

A look at Croatia’s snap election on Sunday

September 09, 2016

ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) — The European Union’s newest member state, Croatia, is holding a snap election this weekend that pits the dominant parties on the left and right against each other but is unlikely to produce a clear winner. The uncertainty is fueling fears of prolonged instability that could hamper reform.

Here is a brief look at Sunday’s vote.

WHY THE SNAP VOTE?

Croatia’s previous, right-wing government collapsed last spring after only six months in power, paralyzed by internal bickering among the coalition members. That government, led by a nonpartisan businessman from Canada, was formed after an inconclusive election last November.

THE MAIN CONTENDERS

The main parties in Croatia are the left-wing Social Democrats and the right-wing Croatian Democratic Union, commonly known as HDZ. The parties have dominated Croatia’s political scene since it split from Yugoslavia in the 1990s, but they will likely depend on smaller, kingmaker groups such as pro-reform Most.

The Croatian Democratic Union led Croatia during the 1991-95 war for independence and is viewed as nationalist.

The Social Democrats — running in a People’s Coalition with some smaller groups — are considered successors to Croatia’s Communists, who fought against Nazis during World War II and later ruled Croatia while it was part of the Yugoslav federation.

Most, a little-known group formed before last November’s elections, came out of the last vote as a kingmaker. It formed a government with HDZ, but it didn’t work well and the coalition government collapsed.

WHAT’S AT STAKE

Although part of the campaign centered on past ideological divisions, whoever forms the next government will face some hard work on reforming Croatia’s economy so it can catch up with the rest of the EU nations. Croatia has one of the weakest economies in the EU partly because of the war and delayed transition.

ELECTION DAY

Croatia has 3.7 million voters. Polls open on Sunday at 0500GMT and close 12 hours later. Preliminary results and projections will start coming in an hour or two after the polls close. Official results are unlikely before Monday.

Croats commemorate WWII massacre amid far-right surge

May 14, 2016

BLEIBURG, Austria (AP) — Thousands of far-right supporters, many brandishing insignia and waving flags of Croatia’s World War II Ustasha regime, gathered Saturday in a field in southern Austria to commemorate the massacre of pro-Nazis by victorious communists at the end of the war.

The annual event this year came amid a surge of far-right sentiments in the European Union’s newest member. For Croatian nationalists, the Bleiburg site symbolizes their suffering under communism in Yugoslavia before they fought a war for independence in the 1990s.

Tens of thousands of Croatians, mostly Ustasha soldiers, fled to Bleiburg in May 1945 amid a Yugoslav communist offensive, only to be turned back from Austria by the British military and into the hands of revengeful antifascists. Thousands were killed and buried in mass graves in and around Bleiburg.

The Ustasha regime sent tens of thousands Serbs, Jews, Gypsies and Croatian anti-fascists to death camps during the war. The gathering Saturday on a vast field surrounded by mountains was attended by top Croatian officials and Croatian Catholic Church clergy who held a mass for the killed Croats.

“All (WWII) victims deserve the same respect and reverence and the totalitarian regimes which committed the crimes deserve equal blame,” Croatia’s Deputy Prime Minister Bozo Petrov said after the ceremony. “We should stop divisions over the victims.”

Since taking power in January, Croatia’s center-right government has widely been blamed for turning a blind eye to the rising extremism and downplaying the crimes of the Ustasha regime. The policies have triggered protests from Croatia’s minority Jewish and Serb communities.

“We are faced with an effort to totally relativize the Ustasha crimes,” said the head of the Zagreb Jewish community, Ognjen Kraus. “It all started with such denials in Germany in 1933 and in Croatia in 1941.”

The Croatian government, which has cracked down on free media and non-government organizations, has denied backing policies that counter EU standards, saying it’s focused on major economic and social reforms and not the revival of the far-right sentiments.

On Saturday, the ultra-nationalists wore black T-shirts with the Ustashas’ “U” symbol and waved flags with inscriptions of their wartime chant “For the Homeland, Ready!” “I’m here because my grandfather perished in the Bleiburg massacre,” said Elvis Duspara, wearing a T-shirt with the chant. “We Croats were never aggressors, we only defended our homeland. That’s why we proudly say: For the homeland, ready!”

UN court acquits Serb nationalist Seselj; Croatia shocked

March 31, 2016

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — In a rare courtroom victory for a Serb defendant, a U.N. war crimes tribunal on Thursday acquitted ultranationalist politician Vojislav Seselj of atrocities and pronounced him a free man. The decision inflamed simmering tensions in the Balkans, sparking joy in Serbia and horror and deep anger in Bosnia and Croatia.

Prosecutors had charged Seselj, 61, with crimes including persecution, murder and torture and had demanded a 28-year sentence for his support of Serb paramilitaries during the region’s bitter, bloody wars in the early 1990s.

But in a majority decision, the three-judge panel said there was insufficient evidence linking the politician himself to the crimes. A dissenting opinion shredded that logic, providing grist for possible future appeals.

“After so many proceedings in which innocent Serbs were given draconian punishments, this time two honest judges showed they valued honor more than political pressure,” Seselj declared at a press conference at his Serbian Radical Party headquarters in Belgrade.

Others heatedly disagreed. “This is a defeat of The Hague tribunal,” Croatian Prime Minister Tihomir Oreskovic said in Vukovar, an eastern Croatian town destroyed by Serbian troops, including Seselj’s paramilitaries, during the war for independence in the 1990s. “I am in Vukovar today, and we all know that this man has done evil to this town. He showed no remorse whatsoever.”

Most of the people indicted and convicted by the court have been Serbs as the international community blamed them for most of the war’s worst atrocities, including the deadly siege of Sarajevo and 1995 massacre of 8,000 Muslim men in Srebrenica.

Seselj, who repeatedly branded the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia an anti-Serb court, was not in The Hague for the ruling. He was allowed to return home in late 2014 on compassionate grounds due to ill health.

Once home, the firebrand ultranationalist, who once said he would like to gouge out the eyes of rival Croats with a rusty spoon, rekindled a political career that was put on hold when he surrendered to the tribunal in 2003.

Now he could become a key political powerbroker after Serbia’s April 24 general election. With a surge in pro-Russian and right-wing sentiments ahead of the vote, Seselj’s Serbian Radical Party has a good chance to return to parliament after missing out two years ago.

Seselj has campaigned on the platform that Serbia must never enter the 28-nation European Union or NATO and should forge closer ties with Moscow. He has burned EU, NATO and Croatian flags during pre-election rallies, and said he would join a coalition government with the incumbent populists, his former allies, only if they give up their goal of EU accession.

The ruling could also further deteriorate relations between the two main Balkan rivals, Serbia and Croatia. Oreskovic, the prime minister described the acquittal as “shameful” and demanded a Serbian government “reaction” as a proof that Belgrade adheres to EU values as it seeks membership in the bloc.

In Bosnia, which also saw mass killings by Serb forces, the acquittal sparked disbelief and anger. “An absolutely shocking decision,” said lawyer and publicist Senad Pecanin. “This is the lowest point of The Hague tribunal.”

Ismar Jamakovic, 23, a student of political science from Sarajevo, said judges ruled that “advocating the creation of Greater Serbia was a political and not a criminal act. Does this mean I can now advocate the creation of an Islamic State without facing any consequences? You’ve got to be kidding me.”

Jamakovic was referring to one of the most controversial aspects of Thursday’s ruling. Prosecutors have long cast wartime plans by Serb leaders including Slobodan Milosevic and Radovan Karadzic as a criminal plot to create a “Greater Serbia” by forcefully expelling non-Serbs from their homes and thus redrawing the Balkan borders. Reading out a summary of the judgment, Presiding Judge Jean-Claude Antonetti characterized the plan as a political goal, not a criminal act.

The ruling called operations in which non-Serbs were bussed out of territory as a “humanitarian mission.” Prosecutors had branded it a forcible displacement of the civilian population. “The reading of the conflict by the trial chamber is very, very different to what we are used to,” Chief Prosecutor Serge Brammertz told reporters, adding that Seselj’s trial was beset by allegations of interference with witnesses and evidence.

Brammertz almost certainly will appeal, but said Thursday he first has to study the ruling, which runs to some 100 pages, and its dissenting opinion. Antonetti also distanced Seselj from the crimes of the Serb paramilitaries he helped to establish, saying that although Seselj “may have had a certain amount of moral authority over his party’s volunteers, they were not his subordinates” when they went into combat.

In a dissenting opinion, Judge Flavia Lattanzi sounded appalled at the findings of the other two judges, saying they had set aside “all the rules of international humanitarian law that existed before the creation of the Tribunal and all the applicable law established since the inception of the Tribunal in order to acquit Vojislav Seselj.”

Serbian political analyst Djordje Subotic said the ruling legitimizes the “Greater Serbia” project, which could have grave consequences for future stability in the Balkans. “This means that the idea of redrawing the borders in the Balkans is revived,” he said.

Seselj said he now expects to win 20-25 percent of the vote for his far-right radicals in April. “The most important is that we get more than the progressives,” he said, referring to the ruling Serbian Progressive Party, his former allies-turned-foes.

Associated Press writers Jovana Gec in Belgrade, Aida Cerkez in Sarajevo and Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed to this report.

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