Activists in Croatia have been served a costly lawsuit over their 12-year campaign to stop developers’ plans for a mammoth golf resort on Srđ hill – a vast area of unspoilt nature overlooking the UNESCO-protected medieval centre of Dubrovnik.

The developers behind the golf project – the Netherlands-based Elitech company and its ‘daughter’ company Razvoj golf d.o. – are seeking around 200,000 Kuna (around €30,000) in damages from Friends of the Earth Croatia – a colossal amount that could force the campaign group to shut down. They are also seeking a court order that would prevent Friends of the Earth Croatia from speaking in public about the case.

Friends of the Earth Croatia is part of the Srđ je naš (Srđ is ours) campaign which has been protesting the plans for the enormous, gated golf community since 2006.

Speaking to META, Enes Ćerimagić, a lawyer for Friends of the Earth Croatia, said:

“We are being heavily targeted by the investor, and we are in peril of being shut down. We are afraid that, more and more, this is becoming a modus operandi against environment defenders.”

As well as defending themselves against the lawsuits, the activists are once again challenging the legality of permits issued for the project.

In September 2017 the Croatian government issued the developers with new permits – which were identical to location and environmental permits which had previously been overturned by Croatian court rulings following successive legal complaints from Srđ je naš. Friends of the Earth Croatia say that the newly-issued permits are illegal as the decision to issue them was justified using old documents.

The new permits were issued just six weeks after Dutch investors filed a €500 million claim against the Croatian government for “taking away their development licences”.

The arbitration claim was made using a so-called ‘investor-state dispute settlement’ mechanism – a controversial feature of modern trade deals which gives foreign companies the power to sue governments when they fear their ability to make a profit is undermined by that government’s actions.

Enes Ćerimagić said:

This is a great example of the impact ISDS and alike mechanisms have on the proper functioning of the state; that is on the promoting and safeguarding of public interest. We have initiated new lawsuits against the new permits, in spite [of] investors’ lawsuits against us, and [we] hope for the positive outcome. We have been very patiently and meticulously proving many illegalities of this, in essence, land-grabbing project. At least three final court decisions corroborate our claims. In the coming period we will concentrate on the legal cases – both against the project’s permits and those initiated against us by the investor.”

The project – which would dwarf Dubrovnik at 20 times the size of its old city and require huge amounts of water and pesticides to maintain – is hugely unpopular with the public. In a 2013 referendum organised by Srđ je naš, 84% of local residents who voted said they were against the plans. However, all major political parties in Croatia support the project.

In 2014 Srđ je naš successively won a legal battle against a previous court decision to triple the size of the project and in September 2016 the campaign won its case to overturn the project’s environmental permit. Just a year ago in February 2017 they successively won a case for the location permit to be torn up.