Croatian Police Arrest Facebook Opposition

Police arrest member of opposition party for posting Nazi pics on social site.

Dec. 5, 2008— -- Remember the popular Facebook group I bet I can find 1,000,000 people who dislike George Bush! or a group dubbed Stop Hillary Clinton: (One Million Strong AGAINST Hillary)?

It all looked like an innocent way to express one's feelings about U.S. politicians. Well, what works on Facebook in the United States doesn't always play out as well in other countries, especially in Croatia, where it can result in an arrest.

On Nov. 28, police arrested 22-year-old Croatian Niksa Klecak, a member of the Social Democrats, the main opposition party, and founder of the Facebook group I bet I can find 5000 people who dislike Sanader.

The politician at issue is Croatian Premier Ivo Sanader, recently under fire for his economic policies and for a revival of tensions with neighboring Serbia. The Facebook site critical of Sanader altered images of him to contain Nazi symbols, which are illegal under Croatian law.

So far, a little less than 15,000 members have joined the group, far more than the 5,000 that Klecak wanted to gather. Compare those numbers to the 27 who have signed up for two Facebook groups that support the premier.

Police said they detained and interrogated Klecak Nov. 28 "not because of his party affiliation" but because he posted a photo montage portrait of Sanader in a Nazi uniform, a violation of Croatia's law banning Nazi propaganda.

The detention has drawn sharp criticism from Klecak's Social Democrat party. The party's leader, Zoran Milanovic, said, "The action endangered freedom of expression in the European Union candidate country."

Sanader at first defended the police action by focusing on the banned Nazi imagery. "Everything that's going on Facebook with that Nazi insignia, it's not aimed against the prime minister, but against democracy in Croatia," Sanader told Croatian radio. "There is no satire or games with swastikas or Nazi insignia."

Political opponents and the media dismissed the explanation, saying the police had never acted against Nazi propaganda until now.

"When I saw what occurred, I was unpleasantly surprised and decided to start a Facebook group Enter my apartment, Gestapo gang, Croatia is not a police state, which will point out all the other groups on Facebook that use messages and photographs to prompt hatred, which the police are not reacting to," Marko Jurcic, an avid Facebook activist, told the Croatian press.

On Jurcic's list of Facebook names are (originally in Croatian): Kill, Slaughter So That Serbs Do Not Exist and one that refers to Croatia's World War II-era Nazi group, Ustasha Youth.

Jurcic has previously used the disputed photograph of Sanader in a Nazi uniform. He currently has it as his avatar at Police State Alert, which a number of groups on Facebook have picked up, along with its warning that Croatia has become a police state.

But Croatian police have detained and questioned other Facebook activists critical to the government. They've detained an organizer of a Facebook group that called for anti-government rallies today in several towns, including the capital of Zagreb. The group has more than 80,000 members. Police also detained and questioned an activist in Zagreb, who had been posting protest posters on billboards.

Cornered by the furor, Sanader issued a statement Thursday, asking Interior Minister Tomislav Karamanko and Police Chief Vladimir Faber to "submit a report on the latest events and arrests in Zagreb and Dubrovnik, and to take appropriate steps if police did not respect regulations."

"By arresting several Facebook activists and by searching their computers, the Croatian police behaved in the best manner of the Chinese Secret Service," Croatian journalist and writer Boris Dezulovic told "Perhaps the police are only trying to identify the other 119,999,999 collaborators on the infamous Facebook."

The arrests so far show that police in Croatia have been tracking political protesters online, even through social networks, to arrest them and deter their online complaints. The Croatian journalists' association called on the government and police to "stop the repression and search for those responsible within its ranks."

"It is especially annoying that the premier at first justified the police action by using an excuse that it was to prevent hate speech," said an association statement.

"A social network like Facebook has focused on getting real people to share real information and to use features like groups and events to organize real world activities. That's why it is so popular in the Balkans," said web guru Marko Jevtic, the head of the popular

The influence of Facebook on political life in national and global communities has been rising. In June, Egypt considered blocking Facebook after anti-government protests in April and May were coordinated via the site.

A protest held in 190 cities across the world in February against the activities of the Columbian rebel group FARC was also organized through a group on Facebook that gathered more than 12 million people.

And in Italy similar groups have lashed out against Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi for his remark about Barack Obama's "suntan."