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Croatian press in the dock as Tudjman pursues his enemies

A trial opens in Zagreb today where press freedom itself seems to be in the dock. Steve Crawshaw reports on crime and punishment, in President Franjo Tudjman's Croatia.

Feral Tribune, an impudently satirical weekly, is not known for showing reverence towards the powers that be. In Croatia these days such reverence is compulsory. Hence - at least in the view of many critics of the Croatian regime - today's court case.

The editors of the Feral Tribune have already been in court before, in connection with the offending article and photographs, which appeared to compare President Tudjman with Ante Pavelic, leader of the Croatian fascist state during the Second World War, and with General Franco, the Spanish dictator. They were prosecuted under a new law forbidding defamation of the President.

To the surprise of most observers, the judge acquitted the editors last Septem- ber. Shortly afterwards, Croatia was admitted into the Council of Europe - in effect, the waiting room for membership of the European Union. Croatia's membership had been put on hold, not least because of concerns about freedom of the press.

The state prosecutor appealed, however. Another court has argued that the acquittal of the journalists - editor Viktor Ivancic and leading writer Marinko Culic - has "no basis in law", and was "an essential violation of the rules of legal proceedings". Result: the case is returning to the Zagreb municipal court, for a "revised trial".

The court originally ruled that it was "absurd, unreal and inappropriate" to consider that a satirical photomontage could be regarded as a criminal offence. But the appeal court has in effect demanded that the municipal court judge come up with a better answer - "In the revised trial the court will remove all omissions pointed out and deliver a new sentence that must be explained properly".

Earlier this year, Feral Tribune published what amounted to a defence of its earlier attacks on Tudjman, with a catalogue of actions which appeared to demonstrate a tolerance of the Ustashe legacy. The original article, entitled "Bones in a Blender", attacked the "crazy and morbid" plan to "mix together the bones of the victims with those of the criminals" at Jasenovac, a notorious Ustashe concentration camp, by lining up the dead on both sides. Officially, this is seen as "reconciliation".

The attacks on Feral Tribune are only part of a wider pattern of putting pressure on independent thinkers in Croatia. Zvonimir Cicak, a leading human rights activist, faces prosecution for alleged false statements about President Tudjman. George Soros's Open Society Institute in Zagreb was recently prosecuted for falsifying official records, in a move that was widely perceived as political.