After four years of legal struggle, the European court of human rights (ECHR) has ruled that Croatian police were responsible for the death of a six-year-old Afghan girl when they forced her family to return to Serbia via train tracks without giving them the opportunity to seek asylum.
The little girl, named Madina Hussiny, was struck and killed by a train after being pushed back with her family by the Croatian authorities in 2017.
Judges of the Strasbourg-based ECHR said on Thursday that the Republic of Croatia violated the girl’s right to life, treated children inhumanely by keeping them in detention, illegally deprived the whole family of their liberty, collectively expelled part of the family from Croatia, and ultimately prevented them from accessing their lawyer.
“This is a big win for justice, after four years of gut-wrenching legal struggle,” said the volunteer-run media and advocacy group Are You Syrious (AYS), which, alongside the Centre for Peace Studies, a NGO promoting non-violence, has supported the Afghan family. “The verdict won’t bring the little girl back, but we hope it serves as some sort of closure for the family.’’
Madina and her family had made it into Croatia by scrambling across fields and over and under fences but that night, like many others, she was stopped by the Croatian police.
According to her family, she was happy to see the officers at first, expecting to be taken to a police station to formally claim asylum, their right under European law. Instead, they were driven to the railway line and ordered to walk back towards Serbia.
“I begged: ‘If you won’t accept us, please let us stay here tonight. In this weather we are already tired and cold, the children are little,’” Madina’s mother, Muslima, told the Guardian in 2017. “But they were inhuman.”
Croatian border guards had initially denied that Madina and her family had set foot in their country before her death. However, four years later, the ECHR ruled that authorities in Zagreb played a role in her death by denying her family’s claim for asylum, and consequently putting the six-year-old in the path of the train.
“The European court concluded that Croatia collectively expelled the mother and her six children from Croatian territory in the middle of the night outside of any legal procedure and without considering their individual situation,” said Antonia Pindulić, legal officer of the Centre for Peace Studies, which, alongside AYS and Border Violence Monitoring Network intervened in the case as a third party.
Charities said that the ECHR was the last resort to seek justice after Croatian institutions failed to carry out an effective investigation on the circumstances that led to the six-year-old girl’s death.
The recordings of thermal imaging cameras, as key evidence available to the police, had mysteriously disappeared.
“We expect Prime Minister [Andrej] Plenković to urgently dismiss those responsible for the death of a child at our borders due to the actions of institutions that we, the citizens of Croatia, finance,” the Centre for Peace Studies and AYS said at a press conference in front of the Croatian government.
“This verdict must not be limited to the Republic of Croatia paying €40,000 (£33,000) in non-pecuniary damage to Madina’s family from the state budget,’’ said Tajana Tadić from AYS. For all the victims in our borders, for the people who died there, as well as for all the activists who have been intimidated to keep quiet about it, it is time to bring to justice those who enable and cover up this violence, and that responsibility must be sought at the top of the Ministry of the Interior.”
Hundreds of migrants walk the snowy paths of the Balkan route daily, in an attempt to reach central Europe. Most are stopped by Croatian police, searched, often allegedly robbed, sexually assaulted and violently pushed back into Bosnia, where, for months, thousands of asylum seekers have been stranded in freezing temperatures.
Last October, leading European media outlets released footage showing a masked Croatian police officer beating up young asylum-seekers with a stick at the country’s border with Bosnia.
On Friday, the interior minister, Davor Božinović, said that he would not resign after the ECHR ruling. Božinović said the death of Madina was a tragic event. “However,” he added, “I ask you not to underestimate the situation in which the Republic of Croatia found itself. There are groups of people, families who are coming to Europe. The Republic of Croatia can either prevent illegal entry into its territory or become the so-called hotspot to a large number of migrants from other parts of the world.
“It is least in my interest, both as a man and as a minister, to avoid answering questions when we talk about victims, about human victims, about the death of a child,” he said. “However, we must pursue a policy of acting in accordance with the law and fulfilling our obligations as a state.”