Legal Corner

Croatian Courts: Kafkaesque

Columns | Julia Abermann | October 2009

Croatia is now in line for European Union membership: Slovenia has withdrawn its objections over the border dispute, and the wheels are in motion to bring the country’s debt levels in line with European standards.

However, a recent miscarriage of justice that condemned a man to 40 years in prison on the flimsiest of evidence raises serious doubts as to whether Croatia’s legal system is governed by standards corresponding with the guarantees of the European Convention of Human Rights. The bizarre two-year criminal case has been described by observers as "appalling," and symptomatic of deeply rooted problems in both the code and the court system that will need to be addressed for Croatia to meet European standards of human rights.

In 2005, Nedja Aidaric, a citizen from Bosnia-Herzegovina, was arrested for alleged car theft in Croatia. While in pre-trial custody, he became ill and was transferred to Zagreb prison hospital where he shared a hospital room with four other prisoners. Only a few months after Aidaric’s stay in the prison hospital, he was sentenced to forty years for triple murder and burglary. The judgement was based on the statement of only one hearsay witness, himself a convicted murderer. No other material evidence was submitted.

"The whole thing was preposterous from the outset," said well known human rights lawyer Dr. Gabriel Lansky, "and the proceedings seemed to have been scripted in advance."

From the start, the circumstances of the witness’ statement were very peculiar. In the Zagreb prison hospital, Aidaric shared a hospital room with four other prisoners, Josi Bernovic, Stero Stalic, Dragan Sucip, Nikola Josib, all of whom Aidaric met there for the first time. Josi Bernovic had been arrested on suspicion of the murder of three people in connection with a burglary, which he allegedly had committed in Kutina, Croatia in 1998. He had already been acquitted of this crime, but the proceedings had been reopened and he was sent back to jail. Stero Stalic had been arrested on suspicion of murder and was already sentenced to seven years imprisonment. His psychiatrist testified that he was emotionally instable and suffering from histrionic personality disorder.

About two months after the hospital stay, Stalic testified in the Bjelovar county court that he had heard Aidaric and Bernovic discussing the triple murder and burglary they allegedly had committed together years before. On this the testimony of the prisoner Stalic, both Aidaric and Bernovic were charged with triple murder and burglary and sentenced a few months later to forty years of imprisonment.

The decision came as a shock. The story itself was so unlikely as to be nearly unbelievable, that two partners of a crime would accidentally meet years afterwards in a prison hospital cell. It is even more unbelievable that they would talk about their crime in public. The witness whose evidence served as the entire basis for the decision was himself sentenced for murder and described by professionals as emotionally instable and suffering from a histrionic personality disorder. And no material evidence against Aidaric was ever provided by the prosecutor and the whole proceeding was conducted in an unusually short time for cases of this kind. In only two years, all the different instances of Croatian courts took their decisions in this case.

It is not clear what hidden interests lie behind this case. But what is clear is that Nedja Aidaric’s rights were not properly respected by the Republic of Croatia during the prosecution of the case. Even his current demand to be transferred to his home country of Bosnia-Herzegovina was rejected by the Republic of Croatia with still no reason given.

Aidaric’s case is currently pending before the European Court of Human Rights, which has become the last hope in his battle for justice.

For the alleged car theft, Nedja Aidaric was acquitted.


Dr. Julia Abermann is an attorney with Lansky, Ganzger und Partner, an international law firm headquartered in Vienna, with consultation in 16 languages.

The names of the prisoners have been changed to protect their constitutional right to privacy.

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