Croatia former PM retried for war profiteering

Former Croatian prime minister Ivo Sanader speaks to the press after leaving Remetinec prison in Zagreb, on November 25, 2015 (AFP Photo/-)

Zagreb (AFP) - Croatia's former prime minister Ivo Sanader pleaded not guilty Friday to accepting a bribe from an Austrian bank during the country's 1990s conflict, at the start of his war profiteering retrial.

Sanader, who confidently steered the Balkans country into NATO and to the European Union doorstep, was charged for accepting almost 500,000 euros ($617,000) in bribes from Austrian Hypo Group Alpe Adria.

The bribes were allegedly taken in the mid-1990s, during the country's independence war, when he was deputy foreign minister and the bank gave Croatia a loan to buy diplomatic premisses.

Sanader was originally sentenced to 10 years in jail in 2012 for taking the bribes from the bank as well as millions of euros from Hungary's energy giant MOL.

The verdict was later cut to eight-and-half years in jail before the country’s top court quashed it in 2014 concluding that Sanader's right to a fair trial had been violated.

A retrial was ordered and the two cases were separated.

"I was not a negotiator (with the bank), and I never talked to anyone about the commission nor did I get one," Sanader, 64, told a Zagreb court.

The prosecutors, quoted by state-run HINA news agency, argued that the high-level corruption during the 1991-1995 war was "jeopardising the basis of Croatia's statehood."

Sanader, who led the government from 2003-2009, has also been indicted in several other abuse of power and graft cases.

He became the top Croatian official to be charged with corruption since the country proclaimed independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991.

The fight against corruption was key for Croatia's bid to join the EU.

Zagreb joined the bloc in 2013.