BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Croatia's economy minister Radimir Cacic has been sentenced to 22 months in prison for causing a traffic accident in Hungary in 2010 in which two people were killed and two injured.
Cacic, barely a year in the job, can be paroled after serving half the sentence, according to the ruling Wednesday by an appeals court in the southern Hungarian city of Kaposvar.
Cacic's lawyer, Peter Zamecsnik, said he was surprised by the verdict but insisted that his client, who was not present to hear his fate, would respect the decision.
"I had expected the appeals court to mostly leave the initial ruling in place," Zamecsnik told The Associated Press.
In June, Cacic, who is also a deputy prime minister, was found guilty of crashing his car into another on Hungary's Budapest-bound M7 highway on Jan. 8, 2010. He was given a 22-month suspended sentence with three years' probation, but the verdict was appealed by both the prosecution and the defense. The prosecution said the sentence was not harsh enough while the defence wanted the guilty verdict quashed.
Zamecsnik said it was unclear when, or where, Cacic would go to prison. First, Cacic will have to receive a translation of the court ruling. It's also possible that Croatia may ask Hungary to allow Cacic to serve the sentence in his home country.
Cacic arrived in Croatia Wednesday afternoon from Qatar, where he was on an official visit as part of a state delegation which also included Croatian President Ivo Josipovic.
Cacic refused to comment on the verdict upon his arrival, but is expected to hold a news conference later Wednesday with Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic.
Lawmakers in parliament and officials described the verdict as a blow to the ruling coalition led by the Social Democratic Party of Croatia.
"I think Prime Minister Milanovic acted adventurously when he named a man with such a burden to the post," said Tomislav Karamarko, head of the opposition Croatian Democratic Union. "That created an impression in Europe that we are not serious, but I hope the prime minister will find the way out of this situation."
Croatia, which was part of Yugoslavia until declaring independence in 1991, is to become a member of the European Union in July 2013.
Darko Bandic in Zagreb, Croatia, and Jovana Gec in Belgrade, Serbia, contributed to this report.