Page last updated at 10:52 GMT, Wednesday, 8 October 2008 11:52 UK

Croatia murder prompts crackdown

By Nick Thorpe
BBC News

The coffin of Ivana Hodak is carried out of her apartment block in Zagreb on 6/10/08
Ivana Hodak's killing is the latest to be blamed on the mafia

Twenty-six-year-old Ivana Hodak, the daughter of a prominent Croat lawyer, was shot twice in the head in broad daylight by an assassin who ambushed her in the stairwell of her apartment block in central Zagreb on Monday.

Ms Hodak's brutal killing sparked protests in the capital among a population sick of spiralling crime rates and sent a chill through the country's ruling elite.

As night fell thousands of people gathered at Cvjetni Trg square in central Zagreb to light candles and lay flowers in a silent protest against the mafia.

The Croatian Prime Minister, Ivo Sanader, responded by sacking his interior and justice ministers, as well as the head of the national police, within hours of the killing, amid fears that rising violence could threaten his country's hoped for European Union membership.

Croatia hopes to complete negotiations for entry next year, and to become the 28th EU member in 2011, but increasing mafia-style attacks could jeopardise those plans. A crucial European Commission progress report is due to be released in November.

All murders committed in Croatia in the last 10 years bear the same signature
Zvonimir Hodak, lawyer
Bulgaria, which joined the EU in 2007, has faced sharp criticism from Brussels for failing to tackle mafia-style killings. Judicial reforms demanded by the EU as a precondition for Bulgaria's entry are being implemented in Croatia.

Last month, the head of Zagreb police was also replaced, reportedly for failing to tackle the rising crime.

Despite the sackings, opposition Social Democrats have called on the government to resign, and for new elections to be held.

Widespread concern

The dead woman's father is a prominent lawyer, Zvonimir Hodak, and her mother a former deputy prime minister, Ljerka Mintas Hodak.

Local media reports have linked the murder to Mr Hodak's defence of retired General Vladimir Zagorec, who is accused of embezzling diamonds worth $5m from the Croatian state during his time as chief of arms procurement in the 1990s. Mr Zagorec was extradited from Austria last Friday and faces trial.

Croatian PM
Ivo Sanader says he will take on Croatian "mafia" gangsters
"All murders committed in Croatia in the last 10 years bear the same signature," Mr Hodak told Croatian TV, in his first public comments after the murder of his daughter. He blamed the killing on those he said felt threatened by information that might come out during the Zagorec case.

The European Commission in Brussels also expressed concern. Krisztina Nagy, an EU spokeswoman, called on the Croatian government to take "all the necessary steps to secure a comprehensive and adequate fight against crime".

'Balkan gangsters'

This was just the latest in a series of beatings and killings, blamed on Croatian underworld groups born out of the 1991-95 war when Croatia broke away from Yugoslavia.

Across the Balkans violent crime fell in the early years of the new millennium and in May a UN report said that Balkan countries, including Croatia, were safer than many western European states. The report claimed the notorious image of "Balkan gangsters" was no longer valid.

But a spate of criminal and murderous incidents in Croatia show a trend more reminiscent of the chaotic post-war years of the late 1990s. An investigative reporter and two businessmen were badly beaten in recent months.

Mr Zagorec's trial is expected to go ahead. The missing jewels were allegedly used as collateral in an arms deal at a time when Croatia had difficulty raising international loans. Reports in the Croatian media suggest they were donated by wealthy Croats, and even the Catholic church, as a contribution to the war effort.

Country profile: Croatia
10 Jul 08 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Croatia
10 Jul 08 |  Country profiles

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