Croatians protest over release of rape suspects

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Anger is brewing in Croatia after a judge released five men suspected of gang-raping a 15-year-old girl. DENIS LOVROVIC/AFP

Croatian cities were overtaken on Saturday as thousands marched to protest against the release of five men suspected of gang-raping a teenager.

Earlier this month, a judge released the suspects accused by police of repeatedly raping a 15-year-old for nearly a year in their village outlying the coastal town of Zadar.

They also allegedly filmed the abuse on smartphones and then blackmailed the girl, until she eventually told her school’s psychologist, local media reported.

Their release while the investigation is ongoing shocked many and after a week of public protests, the five were placed in custody on Thursday.

Women’s rights groups had called for protests on Saturday under the banner of pravdazadjevojcice, “Justice for Girls” in Croatian.

The protesters numbered about 7,000 in the capital Zagreb on Saturday, according to organisers. Demonstrations were held in 15 other cities.

“Not punishing crime is a crime” and “Women against the system” were some of the banners carried by the Zagreb marchers.

“We are here since the system has again let down one of us,” Petra Karmelic, of the organisers, told the crowd in a downtown Zagreb park.

“Both institutions and we as a society have failed. We cannot talk about violence against women only when such tragic events hit the headlines,” she said.

In a similar case last year in Spain, massive demonstrations erupted after five men were convicted of sexually abusing, rather than raping, a teenager at Pamplona’s bull-running festival.

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 up to five years in prison.

Between 90 and 150 rape or rape attempts are reported annually in Croatia, police data show.

But experts say that for each reported case there are up to 20 which never reach the courts.

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.