Croatian police arrest senior ruling party official for graft

by Reuters
Wednesday, 2 April 2014 14:03 GMT

ZAGREB, April 2 (Reuters) - A senior local official of Croatia's ruling Social Democrat party was arrested on Wednesday on corruption charges, a police source said.

Marina Lovric Merzel, the prefect of Sisak county in central Croatia, was taken away from her flat by police before dawn on Wednesday, local media said. She is one of the officials who make up the party's (SDP) presidency.

Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic called an urgent news conference and told national radio he could not comment yet. "Until an indictment is raised and we get to know some details, we can not know enough to make comments," he said.

Croatia has been pursuing an anti-graft drive which helped it gain entry to the European Union last year. Since 2009, it has jailed managers in state companies and top officials including former prime minister Ivo Sanader and his entire political party, the conservative HDZ, now in opposition.

Local media have reported that Merzel was under investigation for abusing public funds. Merzel had previously dismissed all accusations as "monstrous fabrications".

Her lawyer told national radio he had not yet spoken to Merzel and did not know the details of the charges.

The SDP came to power in late 2011, promising an economic revival and a clean break with widespread corruption.

Its ratings plunged to an all-time low last month after unemployment rose to a 12-year high after years of recession. Corruption allegations have also eroded its support.

"Once we realise that nothing is being swept under the carpet, we will realise that this is an advantage," Interior Minister Ranko Ostojic told state radio.

Political analyst Andjelko Milardovic said: "It is evident that political grip on the judiciary has considerably weakened," adding recent arrests would not necessarily harm the SDP's ratings "if they turn it to their advantage by saying they want to have a clean sheet." (Reporting by Zoran Radosavljevic and Igor Ilic; Editing by Ruth Pitchford)

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