Thursday, May 01, 2003

Where Life Is Too Harsh…

While Iain Murray writes about 63% Britons having nothing against reintroduction of death penalty, European criminals would probably need not to worry about encounter with state-sanctioned executioners any time soon. Opinion polls all over Europe – "Old" and "New" – would probably bring same results, but political establishment, unlike in USA, tend to be alienated from their grass roots and, furthermore, in widening rift between former allies death penalty is the rare issue that make European politicians feel good about themselves. And the death penalty also tends to be associated with European totalitarian past which everyone wants to be disassociated from at any cost. Sometimes this cost is in common sense and Croatian example is most telling.

Croatia, just like all the republics of former Yugoslavia, had death penalty in its penal code. When democracy came, death penalty was one of those symbols of un-democratic past that had nothing to do with new, "enlightened", Western and European regime of Franjo Tudjman. Constitution of 1990 specifically prohibited its use, thus only sanctioning six-year long practice.

Now, it would be easy to imagine that Croatia had replaced death penalty with its best/worse alternative – life imprisonment. But it wasn't case – Croatia kept its old Communist-era penal code which had its own alternative for death penalty in the form of twenty-year sentence.

This alternative to death penalty was introduced by victorious Communists in 1945. The idea was to "differentiate" between "scum" (captured Ustashas, Chetniks, war profiteers, collaborators etc.) who deserve no mercy and those who still had some hope of being rehabilitated and re-educated into useful parts of Socialist society - mostly those who had bad luck of being drafted by losing side in WW2 and mostly people in their early 20ies. After serving their 20-year sentence those men could get out in their 40ies and still be able to earn for the living.

Whatever the motives of victorious Communists, courts of former Yugoslavia, especially in the last decades before the dissolution, embraced 20-year prison sentence as the harshest form of criminal punishment. Death sentences were rare, executions even rarer and Communist authorities in all federal units were tolerating public calls for abolition of death penalty. With 20-year sentence practically reserved for worst of crimes – capital murders, terrorism etc. there was deflation of punishment for "smaller" crimes like "common" murder, armed robbery, rape etc. Criminal Code of Socialist Republic of Croatia, for example, had 5-15 year sentence as standard punishment for murder. In practice courts usually gave 7-8 year sentence for that crime.

In first years after 1990 Constitution and abolition of death penalty, Criminal Code wasn't amended because Tudjman's government had other priorities. So, throughout entire war the worst thing to happen to any evildoer in Croatia was 20-year sentence. If Ratko Mladić (Ratko Mladic) had surrendered to Croatian authorities in 1992 he would be sentenced to twenty years (and most probably a free man by this time). Many of the worst crimes were committed by people in their early 20ies or late teens – when all those people get out they would be in shape to continue with their murdering ways.

Ivica Crnić (Ivica Crnic), justice minister in Tudjman's government (now Chief Justice of Supreme Court) was the first politician to address this issue in 1994. He proposed new Criminal Code with 20-year sentence being replaced with so-called "long-term prison" – special punishment of 20-30 years. Soon afterwards he was sacked for allegedly supporting liberal faction within HDZ, but his subordinates within Justice Ministry managed to push proposal to Sabor.

The bill got to Sabor in 1997 and created very little interest within Croatian public. The only people being bothered with it were among human rights groups and leftists. Feral was appalled to find government accepting some amendments from more conservative HDZ Sabor members and raising the maximum sentence 40 instead of 30 years. Amendments introducing life imprisonment were defeated, though.

New sentence was applied very rarely in Croatian courts. Those sentenced to "long-term prison" usually got 20-25 years. The only one to get maximum 40 years was former policeman who had shot judge, lawyer and his wife during divorce proceedings.

But now Račan's (Racan's) government is contemplating introduction of life imprisonment, partly in an attempt to win votes on "tough on crime" platform. If the idea is to score PR points, so far they are doing poorly. Practically every attorney in Croatia and most of the judges are up in arms, demanding that life imprisonment stays out of Croatian Criminal Code. They slam the measure as "inhuman", "anti-Christian", "anti-European" and "barbaric" and claim that life imprisonment would not the serve the main purpose of Criminal Law which is, in their mind, rehabilitation.

One of the authors of the proposed law had to publicly defend himself using the very same arguments as those who support the death penalty.


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