HDZ is the first political party in the EU to be found guilty of corruption.
By Drazen Remikovic for Southeast European Times in Zagreb -- 19/03/14
Former Prime Minister Ivo Sanader (centre) was sentenced to nine years in prison in the Fimi Media case. [AFP]
The conviction of former Croatia Prime Minister Ivo Sanader and the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) for corruption is a warning to all political parties, experts and politicians said.
The HDZ, which ruled Croatia for 16 years, on March 11th became the first political party to be found guilty of corruption in the EU.
The party, which is currently in opposition, was ordered to pay back about 3.8 million euros.
"It is extremely important that HDZ as a party was found guilty of corruption. With this verdict, the judiciary in Croatia has sent a clear message that its job is to protect citizens from corruption. This is also a warning to all other political parties on what is waiting for them if they start to behave like HDZ," Davor Gjenero, a professor at Zagreb's Faculty of Political Science, told SETimes.
Authorities said Sanader headed a scheme that siphoned almost 2 million euros from state-run firms and institutions through the Fimi Media marketing agency from 2003 to 2009, making illegal financial gains for the HDZ and himself. He was sentenced to nine years in prison.
Former HDZ treasurer Mladen Barisic was sentenced to three years in prison, former HDZ chief accountant Branka Pavosevic to a year and a half, Fimi Media owner Nevenka Jurak to two years and former HDZ and government spokesman Ratko Macek was given a one-year sentence, suspended for four years. Jurak was ordered to pay back 350,000 euros.
HDZ criticised the ruling. "We will appeal the verdict," Tomislav Karamarko, chief of HDZ, said at a press conference after the ruling.
Experts said political corruption, extortion and interference with the country's judiciary have been intense in Croatia for more than 20 years, which made political parties and their leaders believe they were untouchable.
Fighting corruption was a key requirement for Croatia to join the EU. The prosecution of Sanader, which began in 2012 when the former prime minister was arrested in Austria, is seen as the biggest corruption case in Croatia since its independence.
"This decision is important for two reasons: The message is that theft of public funds and extortion by politicians will not be tolerated, and those attempting it face consequences of jail and restitution of stolen monies," Natasha Srdoc, president of the Adriatic Institute for Public Policy, told SETimes.
"Reversing the amounts of funds haemorrhaging from Croatia's budget for more than 20 years through political party financing and illicit financial outflow via crime, corruption and tax evasion by corrupt politicians and their private partners in crime, could have avoided Croatia's high budget deficits and indebtedness," Srdoc added.
Many are satisfied with the verdict, praising the state's capability to resolve such cases.
"The amounts that were mentioned in the Fimi media case made people feel dizzy. The key now is to demonstrate the ability of the state to take away the property since the court ruled in such a way," Dragutin Lesar, president of the Croatian Labour Party, told SETimes.
Davorka Budimir, chief of Transparency International Croatia, agreed that confiscation of illegally acquired property should become the practice in trials for corruption and other property crimes.
"Until this judgment, most of the parties passed only with administrative sanctions. But this trial showed that non-transparent financing is punishable in a criminal sense," Budimir told SETimes. "However, as sanctioning mechanisms become more developed, there is less manipulation. Therefore, TI suggests that parties should be financed exclusively by membership fees and donations from individuals, banning donations from companies and financing from the state budget."
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