War crimes trials are exceptionally important for bringing about peace and justice, in Croatia and its neighbourhood alike, and delaying war crimes trials may compromise the trust in justice and the judiciary, it was said at a round table discussion on excessively long war crimes trials in Zagreb on Tuesday.
The head of Documenta - the Centre for Dealing with the Past, Vesna Terselic, said that problems accompanying war crimes prosecution in Croatia had existed for some time. Of the 490 registered war crimes cases, perpetrators remain unidentified in 171 cases, she said.
In 2015, there were more criminal reports against war crimes, she said, adding that this bore evidence of "the greater activity of those concerned about the inefficiency of prosecution."
"A major problem currently is inadequate capacity, notably of the Office of the Chief State Prosecutor (DORH). When we look at the state budget for this year, we see no reason for optimism. The entire society, notably the victims, expect a lot from investigations and war crimes trials and the judiciary has limited capacity," Terselic stressed.
The year 2015 was marked by disregard for final court rulings in war crimes cases by main social stakeholders, she said.
"There were a number of situations in which war crimes indictees and people convicted of war crimes were invited to the most important events in the country's social life, such as the inauguration of the President of the Republic or commemorations of important dates from the Homeland War. That is sending a wrong message to the public," Terselic warned.
She said that it was evident that the interest in war crimes prosecution was waning, both at the level of the executive authority and with regard to the national strategy for the development of the judiciary.
"It is important to intensify those proceedings, especially considering the fact that based on agreements signed by prosecutorial authorities we have received a number of cases from Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia," she stressed.
Presenting a report on the monitoring of war crimes trials in 2015, Milena Cavic Jelic of Documenta called for boosting the judiciary's human and technical resources so as to efficiently prosecute war crimes.
She said that in 2015 DORH received 41 criminal reports related to war crimes, which, she said, bore witness to the fact that victims' relatives were aware of the inefficiency of investigations.
She said that two positive events last year were the adoption of the Act on the Rights of Victims of Sexual Violence in War Conflicts and the National Strategy on Further Development of Assistance to Witnesses and Victims.
Calic Jelic said that last year Documenta monitored 37 war crimes trials. In eight of those cases, the perpetrators were members of the Croatian army or police, in 26 the perpetrators were members of Serb paramilitary units and the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA), and three cases referred to crimes committed in the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
She said that four county courts - in Zagreb, Osijek, Rijeka and Split - last year scheduled 171 hearings, noting that hearings were often scheduled but rarely held.
"Hearings are rarely held because judges have to work on many other cases, but they are held within legal deadlines," she said.
Courts last year handed down 13 non-final rulings against 19 indictees, of whom 12 were sentenced in eight separate cases. The average prison sentence is 5 years and nine months, which shows that three in four indictees were given minimum or below-minimum sentences, said Calic Jelic.
As for the duration of war crimes trials, it is worrying that a large number of cases, around 30%, are returned to trial courts for a retrial, she said, warning that Croatia was the only country conducting war crimes trials in the absence of indictees, which, she said, should be avoided.