Austrian judge orders ex-Croatian PM held pending extradition

By bne IntelliNews December 12, 2010

bne -

An Austrian judge on Saturday, December 11 ordered former Croatian prime minister Ivo Sanader held for two weeks pending extradition to Croatia on suspicion of abuse of power, prosecution officials told newswires.

If Sanader agrees to a simplified extradition procedure, he could be sent back to Croatia within days; if he refuses to be extradited voluntarily, the case would have to go before a court.

Sanader was arrested in Austria on December 10 hours after Croatian police issued an international arrest warrant for Sanader. The former PM fled on December 9 as the country's judicial authorities opened the way for his arrest for "conspiracy to commit crime and abuse of office". The Croatian prosecutor's office submitted a request on the morning of December 9 to a parliamentary committee to strip Sanader of his immunity, signalling that legal action was imminent. After a meeting starting almost three hours after Sanader had left the country, the committee unanimously decided to recommend that he should be arrested on suspicion of "conspiracy to commit crime and abuse of office" subject to parliamentary agreement. Interior Minister Tomislav Karamak told local radio the ease of Sanader's departure was due to a "systematic failure" of the system.

Moves to arrest Sanader have been widely expected since the arrest at the end of September of his close ally Mladen Barisic, party treasurer of the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) during Sanader's time as its president. Mladen is accused of skimming off funds from state companies to finance the party.

The sleaze allegations surrounding Sanader are reinforced US embassy cables released by WikiLeaks. Mladen Bajic, Croatia's chief prosecutor, told US embassy officials in January that Sanader was the "target" of "several ongoing corruption" probes. "Prosecutors are developing at least one case against the former PM which could result in his indictment, and they are continuing to uncover evidence in several other cases which could also implicate Sanader," the embassy reported in January. "Sanader has possible involvement in several cases, but the one in which prosecutors have gathered the most evidence involves illegal mediation between his friends and Hypo Alpe Adria Bank Group of Austria."

The Hypo bank, based in Klagenfurt in southern Austria close to the Croatian and Slovene borders, acted as financier to the late Jorg Haider, the far-right Austrian leader. It collapsed two years ago and was nationalised by the Austrian government.

End of the road

Sanader's unpredictable behaviour has been the stuff of speculation since he abruptly resigned as prime minister and president of HDZ in July 2009, to be replaced in both roles by one of his two deputies, Jadranka Kosor. Sanader was then expelled from the party in January, after saying his resignation was a "mistake" and attempting to return to politics. He found a seat in parliament as an independent only in October, a move cynics saw as motivated primarily by the promise of immunity.

Sanader joins a dozen or more facing charges related to corruption. September saw the indictment of Sanader's other former deputy, Damir Polancec, and seven former business executives for allegedly embezzling around $71m from the Podravka food company. In October, Sanader himself appeared before a government panel investigating the 2009 sale of Croatia's state-run oil company, Ina. Kosor denies knowledge of the deal.

And only last week, Berislav Roncevic, a former defence minister under Sanader, was sentenced to four years in jail for having bought trucks at inflated prices. It remains unclear whether Roncevic or HDZ eventually profited from the deal, but it is widely accepted that backhanders to politicians are important in successfully bidding for public tenders.

Corruption is high on Kosor's priority list, being a key factor in the success of Croatia's bid to gain EU membership by 2012. It has so far completed 25 of the 35 chapters required of it and this latest flurry of legal action cannot do anything but help. Ironically, however, the murky goings on within HDZ that the investigation reveals may seriously damage the credibility of the ruling party ahead of elections next year. But not prosecuting would have looked even worse.

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