**This article has been updated with comments by Croatian President Zoran Milanović.
Council of Europe’s Committee for the prevention of torture (CPT) published a report on Friday (3 December) detailing Croatian police border violence against migrants crossing from Bosnia, following Zagreb’s attempts to block the body’s work.
The Council of Europe’s torture-fighting body visited Croatia in August last year “to examine treatment and safeguards afforded to migrants deprived of their liberty by the Croatian police.”
The report calls on Croatia “to take determined action to stop migrants from being ill-treated by police officers and to ensure that cases of alleged ill-treatment are investigated effectively.”
The CPT lamented the lack of effective accountability mechanisms to identify the perpetrators in cases where the police were accused of misconduct and the absence of specific guidelines on keeping track of police operations.
In Bosnia, the CPT interviewed migrants and “received numerous credible and concordant allegations of [their] physical ill-treatment” by Croatian police.
“The alleged ill-treatment consisted of slaps, kicks, blows with truncheons and other hard objects (for example, butts/barrels of firearms, wooden sticks or tree branches) to various parts of the body”, the CPT said in a statement.
Migrants reported they were beaten either when they were apprehended or pushed back across the border with BiH.
These allegations echo the first-hand testimonies given to EURACTIV by migrants in October this year, which detailed signs of systematic illegal border violence and pushbacks by Croatian police.
“In a significant number of cases, the persons interviewed displayed recent injuries on their bodies, which were assessed by the delegation’s forensic medical doctors as being compatible with their allegations of having been ill-treated by Croatian police officers,” the CPT said.
Migrants also told the international monitors they were forced to march through the forest to the border barefoot, thrown with their hands still zip-locked into a river on the border, and stripped-down, sometimes fully naked.
“Manifest difficulties of cooperation”
The Committee also said this was the first time there were “manifest difficulties of cooperation” since the Council of Europe’s torture fighting body started coming in 1998. Croatian authorities reportedly gave incomplete information about places where migrants were apprehended and obstructed access to documentation.
The Committee released the report after media reports in October detailed Croatian state secretary for European and international affairs Terezija Gras’s letter in which she accused the CPT of having threatened police officers, attempted to steal documents, and forcibly entered official premises during their visit in 2020.
The CPT, which will not make public reports without the concerned country’s consent, said media reports broke confidentiality, triggering a rule that makes report publication possible if one of the parties goes public with its contents.
The statements were a “misrepresentation of the report’s contents, the professional integrity and modus operandi of the members of the CPT’s delegation,” the body said in a statement.
Croatia is the only EU country that has refused to publish such reports in the last decade.
The CPT said it “nonetheless wishes to pursue a constructive dialogue and meaningful cooperation with the Croatian authorities, grounded on a mature acknowledgement, including at the highest political levels, of the gravity of the practice of ill-treatment of migrants by Croatian police officers”.
This assessment of Croatia’s willingness to cooperate on allegations of police violence stands in sharp contrast with EU Commission home affairs chief Ylva Johansson’s comments, who on Thursday (2 December) welcomed Zagreb’s handling of media revelations showing border officers beating migrants.
“I really welcome this attitude from the Croatian government to deal with this with open eyes and to investigate and to take actions when allegations are being founded”, the Commissioner said.
Croatia: CPT exceeded its power
In its reaction to the report’s publication, Croatia’s interior ministry said the CPT “based its report on unverifiable information from Bosnia and Herzegovina and clearly exceeded its power”.
The Croatian side also said its comments and remarks on the report were not considered nor published.
Publishing the report without the consent of the interior ministry after over a year has passed since the visit and after a lot of recommendations have been fulfilled can hardly be motivated by improving the identified deficiencies in the field of protecting prisoners, the ministry said in a statement.
Nevertheless, committing to further cooperation with the CPT, the ministry added that “Croatia is not the only member opposing the publication of the Final Report, as this has already been done by Armenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Moldova, North Macedonia, Romania, Turkey and the United Kingdom.”
Police “have to” apply force
“It is hypocritical to preach from somewhere outside, in Strasbourg, about torture,” Croatia’s President Zoran Milanović told local media on Friday (3 December).
“Do Croatian policemen wade through the snow, at -10 degrees, to the border to torture people? I don’t see it that way,” he said.
Asking whether the police is supposed to be “welcoming illegal migrants with balalaikas”, the Croatian head of state said: “At some point, the police just have to apply a certain form of force.”
[Edited by Alice Taylor]