Anger is brewing in Croatia after a judge released five men suspected of gang-raping a 15-year-old girl from their village, triggering calls for protests against a judiciary that women say is failing to protect them.
The suspects, aged between 19 and 20, are accused by police of repeatedly raping their teenage victim for nearly a year in their village outside the coastal town of Zadar.
They also allegedly filmed the abuse on smartphones and then blackmailed the girl with the footage, until she eventually told her school’s psychologist, local media reported.
Last weekend the suspects were questioned by a judge but allowed to walk free while the investigation is ongoing — a ruling that shocked many in the Balkan state.
Following a week of public outcry, state-run television HRT reported late Thursday that the decision had been reversed.
The five suspects, who are not indicted, will be brought back into custody, according to the report. Officials declined to comment.
The initial ruling had set off a flurry of anger, with women’s rights groups slamming the latest sign of a failure to tackle a scourge of sexual and domestic violence.
“Horror in Zadar: Experts and activists outraged over court decision”, read a headline in the daily Jutarnji List paper.
Another local daily announced that judges had “delivered” the victim back to her abusers.
Protests have been called in several cities across the country for Saturday, under the banner of #pravdazadjevojcice, which means “justice for girls” in Croatian.
In a similar case last year in Spain, massive demonstrations erupted after five men were convicted of sexually abusing a teenager at Pamplona’s bull-running festival rather than raping the victim.
Spanish women lambasted the “patriarchal” judiciary as too tolerant of widespread sexual violence.
In Croatia and much of the Balkans, the #MeToo movement has yet to make major waves in societies where a patriarchal culture is firmly entrenched.
But four women’s rights groups are hoping people will heed their calls to join a “loud revolt against a system which supports violence” on Saturday.
“Not punishing a crime is a crime,” declared the organisers, who want to see tougher penalties for sexual and domestic violence.
Rape is punishable by up to 10 years under Croatian law.
Yet the penal code also includes the lighter offence of “sexual intercourse without consent,” which only carries between six months and 5 years in prison.
This lesser offence has had a “highly detrimental impact on the prosecution of rape,” according to Amnesty International, who says more than 90 percent of rape cases in Croatia have resulted in sentences of one year or less.
Last month the government said it would amend these laws in 2020, with plans to remove the controversial “sex without consent” provision.
President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, Croatia’s first female president, also voiced her “outrage” over the crime online.
“We must not close our eyes to violence in our society as it additionally insults the victims,” she tweeted this week.
But other officials have called for calm.
Croatia’s Justice Minister Drazen Bosnjakovic has implored media “to be sensitive in reporting” on the case, as the investigation is still underway.
He said the judge in Zadar received threats and is now under police protection.
The Ombudsman for Children, Helenca Pirnat Dragicevic, also called for “restraint in comments on social media”, where she warned against circulating photos of the alleged perpetrators.
According to police data, between 90 and 150 rape or rape attempts are reported annually in Croatia.
But experts say that for each reported case there are up to 20 which never reach the ears of law enforcement.
Domestic violence has also taken the lives of approximately 300 Croatian women in the past decade, mostly by the hands of their relatives and partners.