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Macedonian Courts in Crisis

High profile corruption cases are currently stalled in the courts.
By Sase Dimovski

Five months after a series of high profile corruption-related arrests in Macedonia, little progress has been made in bringing the suspects to trial.


Judges, prosecutors and police are blamed for mishandling cases while defendants remanded on bail are accused of jeopardising trials by failing to show up.


Only one of January’s raft of corruption cases, many of which concern former senior civil servants and politicians, has so far come to trial.


The case of former secretary general of the VMRO, Macedonia’s leading opposition party, and onetime state health fund director Vojo Mihajlovski is one which shows how slowly the wheels of Macedonian justice turn.


Mihajlovski and several directors of regional medical centres were arrested in January for allegedly bumping up the cost of health supplies for the state’s books and pocketing the difference.


A Skopje court opened an inquiry and ordered suspects to be remanded in custody. Mihajlovski was arrested and remained in detention longer than any other suspect from the January raids, serving 120 days while 20 separate criminal charges were brought against him. He was released on 800,000 euro bail in May. His trial has not yet started.


His long stretch on remand has led to accusations from VMRO supporters that his case is politically motivated.


Jovo Vangelovski, Mihajlovski's lawyer, thinks his client was kept in jail pending trial for as long as possible. He is currently suing the police in Struga, southwestern Macedonia, on Mihajlovski’s behalf for abuse of power.


Vangelovski told IWPR on June 3 that "the police abuse their position and deliberately submit criminal charges one after another every week in order for my client to stay on remand”.


It is unclear whether Vangelovski believes the police and the courts were coming under political pressure to keep Mihajlovski in prison.


Filimena Manevska, president of the Macedonian appeal court, says the slow pace of prosecutions is down to problems with the country’s law on criminal proceedings. “Under the law the judge has to order pre-trial confinement, and to order expert opinion if it is financial crime,” she said.


Getting the expert assessments can take up to 6 months, during which time the defendant can remain in prison


Many in the judiciary agree that a radical overhaul of legislation is necessary, based on a full assessment of the situation from an independent inquiry.


But the Macedonian authorities have rarely looked for expert assessment when bringing in amendments to the judicial system. As a result, changes to the legal system are uncoordinated, reactive and made almost every year.


Manevska, however, is clear about what needs to change to stop the backlog of cases and their slow progress through the courts - reining in the judges during pre-trial hearings.


“Essential and radical changes in the law on criminal proceedings are necessary, and the pre-criminal procedure needs to be directed by the prosecutor instead of by the investigative judge,” Manevska said.


Given that the law limits their involvement in investigations, state prosecutors say it’s unfair that they are blamed for delays in cases.


"The public is under an impression that the things get stuck at the prosecutor's office. The job of the prosecution is to accept the charges and to make a decision whether investigation should be carried out,” public prosecutor Aleksandar Prcevski told IWPR on June 2.


But Edward Joseph, director of the International Crisis Group in Macedonia, suggested to IWPR on June 13 that the problem was less about whether judges or prosecutors should lead investigations but rather that there’s a lack of will and competence to push cases through.


"It is all to easy to blame the slow processing of corruption cases on defects in the law rather than sloth, incompetence or fear” within the judicial system overall.


Joseph argues that while reforming the law is vital, emphasis, particularly from the international community, must also be placed on working out whether judges and prosecutors are up to their jobs.


“We need to do the diagnostic work on the judiciary to see where the problems lie,” he said.


But it’s not just a question of reforming the legal system and the people who apply it. There are more basic problems to be dealt with, such as defendants remanded on bail not turning up for trials.


In December 2002, Tatjana Mitrovska, the director of the Macedonia’s planning authority, the Cadastre Directorate, along with five of her associates, were charged with destroying and forging documents in an attempt to cover up that former prime minister Ljupco Georgievski was building a luxury mansion in Skopje under the name of his sister-in-law. The mansion is thought to be worth millions of dollars.


The case is currently going through the courts but has been postponed twice because some of the accused didn’t show up.


Skopje's public prosecutor Sterjo Zikov, who works with 50 of his staff mostly on pre-trial remand cases arising from the anti-corruption campaign, said during a local TV interview last month that it’s the defendants themselves who are often to blame for holding up the trials, as they attempt to keep themselves out of court.


"One reason the proceedings are dragging out is because defendants' abuse their right to defence. When there is more than one defendant and each of them has at least one lawyer, what often happens is that one of them is absent. Because of that trials get postponed and we end up with cases that cannot proceed even after a year or two,” he said.


And if the situation is bad now, it’s likely to get worse as more corruption cases are due.


Those currently under arrest awaiting trial on fraud charges include the ex-VMRO member and director of the state Electricity Supply Service, ESM, Lambe Arnaudov, his assistant Miroljv Pandilov and Vlatko Serasimov, the director of the land survey company Bliv. The three are charged with profiting from a survey deal between ESM and Bliv, which cost ESM 1 million euro. It is alleged that Bliv could not have done such a big job because they only had one surveyor on their books.


Other former famous faces awaiting prosecution include the onetime minister of economy Besnik Fetai charged with abuse of power during the sale of the state publishing enterprise Nova Makedonija. The director of Nova Makedonija, Nikola Tasev and Dusko Avramski, the ex- director of the privatisation agency, also have upcoming trials.


Another case that has dragged for two years is against former defence minister Ljuben Paunovski, also a VMRO member. He is accused of favouring a company owned by his father-in-law Ljupco Petkovski and his brother-in-law Vladimir Talevski in a tender for military equipment.


Sase Dimovski is a journalist with Sitel TV


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