location: Zagreb is the capital of Croatia and its largest city. It is situated in the north-west of the country along the Sava River on the southern slopes of the Medvednica Mountain. In 1991 Zagreb had a population of 933.914 inhabitants. According to the 2011 census, city of Zagreb had 790.017 inhabitants, of which 17.526 Serbs.
time: 1991 and 1992
description of crime: A great number of Serbs, who had lived in Zagreb, fled in the first days of the war. Simultaneously with forced evictions from flats which used to belong to the JNA housing fund that were then transferred to the Croatian Ministry of Defence fund; Serbs, under suspicion of being sharpshooters, members of the fifth column, enemies or simply persona non grata’s as they were branded by media at that time, at the beginning of the war were also victims of harassment and physical attacks. In the middle of 1991 arrests began and in addition to the prison in Gajeva Street, Serbs were taken to the Kerestinec castle in Sveta Nedelja and to the Pavilion 22 at the Zagreb Fair. Pavilion 22 was the collection centre through which certain, yet still unestablished number of citizens, had passed between September 1991 and January 1992. Many of them were arrested by reserve police force, i.e. the so called Merčep people. According to statements by witnesses, victims, mostly persons who were better off, were apprehended in complete secrecy and taken to the container within the Pavilion 22, and then transported to Pakračka Poljana where, following torture, they were executed.
Members of the Croatian Ministry of Interior, the so called Merčep group, barged into the house of the Serb family Zec in Poljanička street on 7 December 1991 in the Zagreb quarter of Trešnjevka. Soon after that, Mihajlo Zec, the father, was murdered in front of the house of a witness, while his spouse Marija Zec, the mother, and daughter, 12 year old Aleksandra Zec, were taken to Sljeme. During the night between 7 and 8 December 1991, eight bullets were fired into the head and chest of Marija Zec and seven into the head and one into the upper arm of Aleksandra Zec. Their bodies were thrown and buried in a pit close to the Adolfovac mountain cabin. Between 12 and 16 December 1991, the following persons were arrested one after another: Nebojša Hodak, Munib Suljić, Siniša Rimac, Igor Mikola and Snježana Živanović, all members of the Croatian Ministry of Interior units. Soon these suspects were questioned and they confessed to having committed the murders. Their statements only differed in parts referring to the level of responsibility for the crime – Mikola and Živanović, as a couple, protected each other, Suljić insisted that Rimac had ordered him to kill the girl and the woman, Hodak confirmed that Mikola shot at the dead bodies and Rimac admitted that he had ordered that “just one bullet” should be fired at the girl.
judicial outcome: Although the suspects admitted during interrogation the responsibility for the murder of members of the Zec family, minutes from questioning of the defendants were redacted from the file upon request from their attorneys and were not admitted as evidence at the trial. As the investigative judge Božidar Jovanović explained, the Zagreb District Court upheld the arguments of the defence that the evidence had not been gathered in a lawful way. The defendants had been questioned by judges of the Zagreb District Court without their attorneys present, which is contrary to the legal practice that defendants must have defence counsel already at the first questioning if proceedings are conducted for a criminal act for which the law envisages prison terms of up to 20 years, which was the case in this procedure.
After half a year which Rimac, Suljić, Hodak, Mikola and Živanović spent in the district prison, on 16 June 1992, the main hearing in this court procedure began. During the presentation of the defence, the five defended themselves with silence. Although they had admitted to the murders, which was later removed from the minutes, and although the weapons with which Aleksandra, Marija and Mihajlo Zec were murdered had been found, District Court In Zagreb acquitted the five defendants. The verdict said that it was indisputably established that Mihajlo, Marija and Aleksandra Zec had died a violent death caused by injuries inflicted by handguns. “This court established that the fragment of the shell casing found beneath the body of Mihajlo Zec originates from an automatic gun of the brand Heckler & Koch, factory number S 07759, which is the automatic gun later found in the attic of the Adolfovac mountain hut. Further, five shells found near the place where the bodies of Marija and Aleksandra Zec were found were also fired from the Heckler & Koch automatic gun, factory number S 07861, which was found in the van owned by Manđarelo Stjepan (…) on the gun’s canvas strap there was an inscription written with ball point pen in big vertically arranged letters which read MIGOR (…) But this court determined that in the special unit of the Ministry of Interior (MUP) at the time when its members were defendants, there was no record of individual assignments of weapons, but only that the unit was issued with a certain amount and type of weapons.” Although the State Attorney’s Office had the right to file an appeal, this was not done. The next year, the Supreme Court rejected the State Attorney’s request for protection of lawfulness pertaining to the Zagreb District Court decision from 26 March 1992 to redact minutes from the questioning of the defendants containing their confession to the murders.
Since a coalition government led by Ivica Račan rejected the out-of-court settlement with the surviving members of the Zec family, attorney Anto Nobilo, representing Dušan and Gordana Zec and their grandmother Bosa, with whom the children have been living in Banja Luka, filed a lawsuit on 31 October seeking compensation for damages from the Republic of Croatia. The lawsuit was filed due to the fact that “ it was undisputable that damaging events were caused by members of Croatian armed forces based on the Law of responsibility of the Republic of Croatia for damages caused by members of Croatian armed and police forces during the Homeland War”.
In the closed part of session, the Croatian government reached a decision on 29 April 2004 to pay out one-off monetary assistance to the Zec family members in the amount of 1.5 million kuna. The government thus directly admitted that it would probably lose that lawsuit, which would have created a precedent that could have affected court practice in proceedings where families were trying to get compensations.
The Zagreb County State Attorney on 10 February 2012 indicted Tomislav Merčep, charging him based on command responsibility for the crimes in Pakračka Poljana and, on the same basis, for the murder of the Zec family. During the trial, Siniša Rimac who had been pardoned by President Stjepan Mesić after seven years in prison for the crimes in Pakračka Poljana, appeared as a witness, as well as Snježana Živanović and Nebojša Hodak. They denied involvement in the murder of the three members of the Zec family, and invoked the legally binding acquittal from the early 1990s. Since 14 September 2005, when the first instance judgement for crimes committed in Pakračka Poljana was pronounced, Mikola and Suljić were on the run. Munib Suljić died in 2006 in the prison hospital in the Hague, and Mikola was arrested in Peru only in July 2014 and he was extradited to Croatia in 2015.
In July 2015, the Zagreb County State Attorney changed the factual and legal description of the indictment against Merčep. Instead of the command responsibility he was now charged for having failed to prevent members of his unit from committing war crimes against civilian population. In comparison with the first indictment, which charged him for being personally responsible for the arrests of 52 and torture of 43 persons, the new indictment was reduced to his failure to take measures to prevent his staff from committing war crimes against civilian population. The Zagreb County Court State Attorney explained the changed indictment by stating that “legal qualification of the criminal act remained the same, that defendant was still charged with having committed the same criminal act – war crime against civilian population from Article 120 of the Penal Code related to Article 28 of the same Law”. But since, as the State Attorney explained, “factual description of the act has been adjusted to the state of facts established during the court hearing, defendant T.M. is now charged as the real commander of the MUP reserve unit for having failed to prevent members of the unit from committing war crime against civilian population.”
The Zagreb County Court convicted Merčep in 2016 to five and a half years in prison, but after the State Attorney’s appeal, the Supreme Court increased his sentence to seven years in prison. Merčep died in 2020.