ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) — Former Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader pleaded not guilty on Monday to charges that he and his ex-ruling party syphoned nearly €10 million ($13 million) in public funds received from illegal donations between 2003 and 2009.
The corruption scandal is billed as the biggest since Croatia became an independent state in 1991. It is the first trial involving a major party, the Croatian Democratic Union, which was ousted from power in December elections mostly because of graft allegations.
Sanader is the highest ranking former official tried for alleged graft in Croatia, which has pledged to root out corruption as it heads toward European Union membership in 2013.
He is charged with ordering state companies to make illegal payments to a media firm, from which he and three other ranking party officials pocketed millions while he was prime minister.
Some of the slush funds were allegedly used by Sanader's party for different presidential and parliamentary election campaigns.
The conservatives led Croatia throughout its 1990s war for independence from the former Yugoslavia, and ruled for most of the period until the center-left coalition took over in December.
Sanader is also on two separate corruption trials on charges that he embezzled over €10 million ($13 million) for securing a Hungarian oil company and an Austrian bank entry and leading positions in the Croatian market.
Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Serbia, contributed.