Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Milosevic Judges Face Retribution

Serbia's new authorities are about to overhaul the country's corrupt judiciary
By Sinisa Stanimirovic

The downfall of Slobodan Milosevic has left Serbia's judicial system in tatters. Over the years, most independent-minded judges have been purged and replaced by Milosevic strooges who now fear retribution.


For the time being though, these judges cannot be removed without Milosevic's approval and they retain power to throw up formidable obstacles in the path of newly-elected President Vojislav Kostunica.


Shorn of all popular respect, the judges are faced with vilification and hostile street demonstrations. The difficulty is that the judiciary is still controlled by a parliament dominated by Milosevic supporters.


Courts and prosecutors' offices are headed by people who received flats and cheap state loans in reward for their loyalty to the regime. And they cannot be thrown out until a new Serbian assembly emerges with an anti-Milosevic complexion.


Signs are that this will come about with elections scheduled for 23 December .


Meanwhile, the discredited judges do their best to thwart reform. One example was a move by the District Prosecutor's office in Belgrade to investigate mine workers from Kolubara whose strike against rigged election results contributed to the fall of the old regime.


A judge who refused to send the mineworkers to jail was taken off the case and


replaced by another, more compliant judge.


Another example was the quashing of an appeal for the pardon of Belgrade


journalist Zoran Lukovic, sentenced to five months in prison because he


published a story unfavourable to Milosevic crony Milovan Bojic.


The First Municipal Prosecutor's office in Belgrade, which brought charges


against the journalist, has ignored criminal charges against the Federal Electoral Committee that falsified election results.


For all their rearguard resistance, a state of unmistakable apprehension


prevails among the old guard judges.


Recently, Judge Pavle Vukasinovic failed to show up for the trial of members of the "Spider" gang, a group of bounty hunters that has been accused of abducting suspected war criminals from Serbian soil and (for reputedly rich rewards) turning


them over to NATO troops for trial at The Hague war crimes court.


The gang's success in smuggling its captives out of Serbia has struck


terror into those on the tribunal's wanted list.


The judge showed up three days later, saying he could not come to court


earlier because his son had been beaten up. A colleague commented,


"somebody attacked the boy in revenge against Vukasinovic who was a


member of the Federal Electoral Committee which stands accused of


rigging election results."


Revenge attacks have been reported from all over Serbia. Citizens of Vladicin Han threw eggs and stones at the building where the president of the local municipal court lives. In Prokuplje, judges organised symbolic public trial for their president and sentenced him to six years in prison!


An officer of the District Prosecutor's office said, "Since 5 October when the regime fell, we have all been living in nervous anticipation. The public prosecutor is aware that he will have to leave office after the change of power and now he is taking his frustration out on us, making life impossible. "


Upheavals in the judiciary have left it too weak to carry out any internal restructuring. Only the Commercial Court in Belgrade has managed a reorganisation since the downfall of Milosevic. The court was a mechanism through which the United Yugoslav Left party, JUL, of Mirjana Markovic, managed to control numerous companies.


The recently sacked president of this court, Milena Arezina, would


order certain companies to be proclaimed bankrupt, after which the JUL


would seize control of them. Even firms with considerable assets were


"declared" bankrupt due to temporary insolvency, the lawyer said.


Other Belgrade courts in recent years have presided over many trumped up


cases. They included those against the journalists of the paper Dnevni


telegraf whose owner Slavko Curuvija was assassinated last year; Zoran Djindjic, leader of the opposition Democratic Party; and former State Security Service officers Vladimir Nikolic and Bozidar Spasic.


Until some 10 years ago, the Serbian judiciary enjoyed a high reputation


and widespread respect. When communism was replaced by a multi-party


system at the beginning of the nineties, Serbian judges were allowed to


be independent for the first time in 45 years.


While most judges had been members of the Communist Party, many


didn't bother transferring to the post-communist Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) which under Milosevic became the ruling party.


Then came the hyperinflation of 1993, when a judge's entire salary bought a box of matches. More than a third of judges went back to being lawyers. Inexperienced and non-qualified members from the ruling party were recruited to take their place, sending judicial standards plummeting.


Court members who had spent years waiting for promotion were ignored,


while politicians handed jobs to men who had never set foot in a


courtroom.


The Official Gazette of the Republic of Serbia revealed that most new 'judges' used to work on farms, in community centres, or in the special forces units of the Yugoslav army.


The extent to which the bench had been politicised stood out glaringly in 1996, when judges close to JUL and the SPS annulled an opposition victory in local elections. After 88 days of opposition protests and international pressure, the results were restored.


At that point, the remaining independent-minded judges formed a


professional body - the Association of Serbian Judges (ASJ) - which has


since been a thorn in the side of the regime.


The ASJ has appealed for replacements in the Federal Court, the Federal Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court of Serbia and the Constitutional Court of Serbia.


Lawyer Vida Petrovic-Skero said the first step towards the eventual return of sacked judges should come from a new Serbian parliament. "One should annul the illegal decisions and create conditions for the return of judges who were sacked," she said.


Similar sentiments are being expressed by sacked judge Miroslav Todorovic, now a lawyer and a member of the presidency of the student protest movement of Otpor, "It is too early to talk about changes in the judiciary as most of the honourable and respectable people who the regime had chucked out have become lawyers," he said.


People who kept silent amid all the abuses are still sitting in courts, so reorganising the system will prove to be a big challenge. The current court presidents and their deputies will probably remain in position until the forming of the new parliament of Serbia is constituted after the elections.


Provided that its deputies act in accordance with the present mood within the anti-Milosevic opposition, new independent-minded judges will be appointed. Then the recovery of the judiciary will begin. But the restoration of its reputation and respect, as well as faith in court institutions, will be a slow and


painful process.


Sinisa Stanimirovic is an IWPR contributor