ZAGREB, Croatia -- The Council of Europe’s committee on torture harshly criticized Croatia Friday over reports of “severe ill-treatment” of migrants crossing into the country and urged the country's authorities to take immediate action to stop the practice.
The report by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, or CPT, said its delegation encountered problems in cooperation, and obstruction during a visit in Aug. 2020.
European Union member Croatia has repeatedly denied allegations of systematic abuse of migrants trying to enter from Bosnia. But President Zoran Milanovic on Friday said that “police sometimes have to use force.”
“How else can the Republic of Croatia protect its border?” Milanovic said, according to regional N1 television.
The CPT report said its forensic medical findings found injuries “indisputably compatible” with police ill-treatment, including some which could only have been sustained as a result of truncheon or stick blows.
The Council of Europe is Europe's main rights watchdog that is based in France and separate from the EU.
The report highlighted other transgressions, including migrants' “transportation in cramped and unsafe conditions, ignoring their asylum requests and denying them access to the fundamental safeguards to which they are legally entitled.”
"(These) are practices that have no place in a State that respects its human rights commitments and abides by the rule of law,” the report added.
Examples of alleged ill-treatment listed in the report also include “migrants being forced to march through the forest to the border barefoot and being thrown with their hands still zip-locked into the Korana river,” which separates Croatia from Bosnia.
Some migrants said they were pushed back in underwear or naked, while “a number of persons stated that when they had been apprehended and were lying face down on the ground, certain Croatian police officers had discharged their weapons into the ground close to them.”
The Amnesty International human rights watchdog hailed the report, saying it confirmed earlier ones by rights groups. Amnesty International criticized the European Commission, the EU's executive body, for not holding Croatia accountable.
“The Commission keeps missing opportunities to hold Croatia to account for widespread violations of EU law while continuing to support it with additional funds and resources," said Massimo Moratti, the group's director of research in Europe. "This raises serious questions about the EU’s potential complicity in human rights violations that are regularly documented on Croatian borders.”
Migrants try to enter Croatia from Bosnia or Serbia in order to move on toward Slovenia or Italy and deeper into Western Europe. Thousands more people who fled violence or poverty in their nations have been stranded in Bosnia and elsewhere in the Balkans looking for ways to build new lives in the West.
In October, Croatia suspended three police officers after a video emerged of masked border police beating migrants with batons. Officials at the time said this was an individual incident rather than established practice.
The CPT report said all Croatian officers should be clearly identified, the practice of wearing balaclavas should be reconsidered and police must treat foreign nationals with respect. Those committing acts of ill-treatment should be punished accordingly, the report said.
“The Committee recommends that the Croatian authorities take the necessary steps to introduce robust accountability and oversight mechanisms for all police operations related to the interception and diversion of migrants," it added.
“The CPT urges the Croatian authorities to ensure that all persons present on their territory who wish to request asylum are able to do so.”
Follow AP’s global migration coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/migration