Several thousand people rallied in Zagreb's King Tomislav Square on Saturday in support for all victims of sexual violence who do not receive appropriate protection from state institutions, with speakers at the event saying that the non-punishment of crime is a crime in itself.
The protest was prompted by the case of an underage girl from Zadar and the release of five young men, suspected of raping, sexually exploiting, blackmailing, and physically and mentally harassing the 15-year-old for a year, from custody, which prompted public outrage.
Meanwhile, a panel of Zadar County Court judges granted the prosecution appeal and ordered that all five young men be remanded in 30 days' investigative custody.
According to the organisers of the protest, the Zagreb rally brought together around 7,000 people. Apart from Zagreb, peaceful rallies were held in about 15 towns, including Zadar, Split, Rijeka, Pula and Osijek.
The protesters in Zagreb carried banners expressing support to victims of sexual violence and opposition to mild penalties for perpetrators of sexual offences.
The protest was organised by several women's organisations and platforms, which called for urgent action to be taken to protect the victim from Zadar and punish the perpetrators.
The NGOs called on the justice ministry to launch disciplinary proceedings against the investigating judge in the case over unprofessional conduct jeopardising the victims' safety and dignity.
They also called on the Office of the Chief State Prosecutor to transfer the case from the Zadar County Court to another county court to prevent possible influence by interest groups to the detriment of the victim, as well as for the police and social workers and court authorities to do their best to protect the victim's dignity and privacy in relation to the local community and media and to provide her with psycho-social support and make sure investigative proceedings are conducted in such a way to prevent causing her additional trauma.
They called for urgently amending the Penal Code to remove the crime of forced intercourse and introduce harsher penalties for rape, in line with a current bill drafted by the Justice Ministry.
The associations asked the public to refrain from undemocratic and uncivil attacks on judges and suspects.
"The Zadar case that we all have been appalled by reveals the structural and institutional nature of violence against women, the ruthlessness of perpetrators of violence grows with their social, economic and political power. Unfortunately, this case is only one in a sea of such cases," said Petra Karmelic of the Platform for Reproductive Rights.
The dark and violent reality is due to the lack of a systematic programme of prevention, lack of support for victims and inadequate punishment of perpetrators, she said.
"Institutions and we as a society have failed," she said, adding that girls and boys were raised unequally, that there was a lack of expert and research-based educational programmes, and that institutions protected perpetrators of violence and took part in it themselves.