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Rights court OKs keeping Croatian presidential files secret

National security interests trump the public's need to get a peek at secret transcripts of conversations had by Franjo Tudjman, Croatia's first president and its war leader in the 1990s, according to the European Court of Human Rights.

(CN) — A former high-level Croatian politician who wants access to secret transcripts of Franjo Tudjman, the late Croatian president who violently carved out a Croatian mini-state during the Yugoslav Wars, lost his case before the European Court of Human Rights on Thursday.

The Strasbourg-based court ruled Croatia had legitimate national security reasons to keep secret 25 documents related to conversations Tudjman had between 1994 and his death in 1999.

Vladimir Seks, a long-time former politician close to Tudjman, wanted the transcripts of conversations for a book he was writing about the foundation of the modern Republic of Croatia following the end of communism and the onset of the Yugoslav Wars.

In denying Seks the documents, Croatia's presidential office did not violate Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, a panel of seven judges unanimously declared. Article 10 relates to the right of freedom of expression and rights to access government information.

The court said Seks' request for the documents was handled properly as it was reviewed – and rejected – first by the Office of the National Security Council and then by Croatia's Information Commissioner, an independent body in charge of protecting, monitoring and promoting the right of access to information.

The Croatian Constitutional Court upheld the decision to not release the documents on the grounds that their declassification could harm national security and foreign relations. The Information Commissioner said Seks had failed to show why “his interest in accessing the information would outweigh such crucial public interests,” the Strasbourg court noted.

The rights court also pointed out that Seks' was provided 31 out of 56 documents that he asked to see in 2017. The files – classified as “state secret – strictly confidential” – related to the years between 1994 and 1999, a period that ran before the end of the Bosnian War in 1995 to Tudjman's death in 1999. Tudjman died while in the president's office.

“The court considers that the interference with the applicant’s freedom of access to information had been necessary and proportionate to the important aims of national security,” the ruling states.

Tudjman led the former Yugoslav republic to independence in the 1990s through a terrible and bloody war with the Yugoslav army and allied Serbian paramilitaries. Several Croatian military leaders were convicted for war crimes. Seks too has been accused of war crimes by Serbia and human rights groups, according to Balkan Insight.

Tudjman is sometimes called the “father of the nation” in Croatia and the country has erected statues of him and placed his name on schools, squares, streets and Zagreb's main airport.

But critics accuse him of being an authoritarian leader who allowed massive corruption during a wave of privatization in the 1990s and accuse him of chauvinism towards Serbs and historical revisionism

Seks argued that it was in the national interest that the documents to disclosed.

Seks was an influential member of Tudjman's centre-right Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ. He helped draft the Croatian Constitution in 1990 and during the war years served as a military commander, public prosecutor and vice prime minister.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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