Austria extradites Sanader

Austria has extradited one of Croatia’s most controversial politicians.

Former Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) chairman and Prime Minister Ivo Sanader was transferred from Salzburg to a prison in Zagreb, the federal capital of Croatia, yesterday evening (Mon). Sanader was put in custody in Salzburg last December. He had been behind bars in the Austrian city nonstop until yesterday. The arrest on the A10 Tauern motorway came shortly after Croatia issued an international arrest warrant on the disputed ex-prime minister.

Zagreb prosecutors suspect Sanader of fraud, abuse of office and founding a criminal organisation. He is suspected of channelling millions of Euros into the HDZ’s coffers to finance the party’s election campaigns. Sanader has denied any wrongdoing. He said he was confident to prove his innocence in court.

The former HDZ boss surprised fellow party members, political rivals and the press by stepping down in 2009. Speculations have spiralled over the step as the politician never argued his decision. Rumours his resignation could have to do with illicit operations soon emerged. While Sanader stressed he was a wealthy man when he entered politics, some newspapers claim his family lavished large amounts of money on priceless paintings and other luxury objects in the past years.

Sanader’s team of lawyers tried hard to prevent his extradition for months before giving in a few weeks ago. Reports have it that the former HDZ chief did not want to threaten Croatia’s likely European Union (EU) accession by holding up juridical procedures. Media in his homeland report that Sanader considers the EU joining as much his lifetime achievement as Croatia’s membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) which was finalised two years ago. Sanader headed talks with EU expansion decision-makers for the most of the intricate process before they announced some weeks ago that Croatia fulfilled all criteria to join in 2013.

The trial against Sanader – who wore his foot in a cast for some weeks after falling over in jail – is expected to take place later this year or next year. His extradition occurred just days after Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) Justice Minister Beatrix ordered it to be carried out. Procedures were delayed previously due to his lawyers’ appeals, but also because of concerns over whether Sanader could expect a fair trial in his homeland.

Ex-ÖVP Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel described Sanader as a “professional politician, a great statesman and a personal friend.” Schüssel invited Sanader to the Vienna State Opera Ball and other high-profile events but also to his private birthday party. Sanader – who is also close to former ÖVP Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik – was visited by ex-Tyrolean ÖVP Governor Herwig Van Staa in custody in Salzburg.

Sanader may also be prosecuted in Austria as state prosecutors suspect him of money laundering using a bank account in Innsbruck where he studied. Prosecutors are also continuing investigations against Sanader in connection with the near collapse of Hypo Group Alpe Adria (HGAA). The former Carinthian provincial bank had to be nationalised in 2009 over its immense losses. The bank prospered for years before getting entangled in controversial real estate deals and risky investments in Croatia and other countries in Southeast Europe. Its lax lending policy has also been blamed for its near demise. HGAA received hundreds of millions of Euros of so-called state aid to keep it alive. Its new bosses admitted they could not guarantee to get the bank into a condition enabling it to pay the full sum back one day.

Sanader said in one of the few interviews he gave after the highway arrest last December that a “witch hunt and a smear campaign has been going on in Croatia against my family and me.” He vowed to emerge “stronger than ever before from all this.”

Speaking to the Salzburger Nachrichten newspaper in January, Sanader said witnesses were influenced and put under pressure to speak out in his disfavour. He said: “The state prosecution never investigated these activities. Some other defendants were promised lenience or acquittals if they accuse me. This was a strategy of many months.”

The former Croatian prime minister claimed there was a “climate of fear” in his homeland, adding that all accusations against him were “politically motivated.”

Sanader warned: “In contrast to Austria or Germany, we haven’t managed to get over the crisis yet. There are 360,000 people out of work, foreign investors keep acting reluctantly. (…) We are unable to pay back our debts, our image worsened. The economy is in a state of standstill.”

Asked who could have been masterminding the “campaign” he has been speaking of, Sanader accused his successor as prime minister and party leader, Jandranka Kosor. “Kosor fears I might want to return to top-tier politics. She wants to prevent that whatever it costs.”