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Montenegrin Trafficking Scandal Deepens

Judge investigating people smuggling case implicating senior official claims she's been harassed by secret services.
By Boris Darmanovic

Montenegrin president Milo Djukanovic has added his voice to the growing chorus around claims from a leading judge Ana Vukovic that the security services tried to obstruct her investigation into a high-profile human trafficking case allegedly involving a senior official.


"I understand that Judge Vukovic intends to produce evidence for her allegations, but I hope no such evidence exists," Djukanovic told reporters on November 12. "I do not believe that the Montenegrin security services would pursue a judge, a state official, or any other citizen for political reasons."


The security service has struck a less measured note, threatening in a statement to prosecute the judge if she fails to substantiate her claims.


Vukovic made her allegations after the pro-government daily Publika used the headline "Sex, Lies and Videotapes" to trail a forthcoming story alleging she had made secret visits to the home of a foreign diplomat. The threat of an attack on her integrity prompted the judge to go public about the pressure she has faced since she was tasked a year ago with investigating a highly controversial human trafficking case.


On November 5, Vukovic published an open letter in the pro- opposition Podgorica daily Dan, outlining her claim that she has been threatened, secretly photographed and had her telephone tapped, while attempting to look into the possible involvement of a state official in the abduction and sexual abuse of a Moldovan woman.


On November 11, she delivered a letter to the ministry of interior offering material to back up her claims. "I have evidence for everything I am putting before the state. I now expect it to do its duty and investigate my claims," she told IWPR, a few days before.


IWPR has been unable to get a response from state prosecutor Vesna Medenica about what action she plans to take, if any. However, Vukovic has a number of influential supporters, including the deputy president of the Podgorica court where she sits as a judge. Zarko Savkovic told Dan that he trusts his colleague and holds her professional qualities in high a esteem. "Tapping the telephone of a judge is a grave violation of human rights and freedom," he said.


Head of the Montenegrin Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, Slobodan Franovic, echoed that concern. "There are serious indications that judicial independence has been violated, along with Ana Vukovic's personal liberty, so the state prosecutor should move to institute appropriate proceedings," he said.


Both the prominent independent think-tank the Group for Changes and the Montengrin branch of the Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Centre, a respected human rights organisation, have commented that allegations of surveillance and intimidation by the state become even more serious when made by a member of the judiciary.


Vukovic was appointed to the trafficking case soon after it began in November 2002, when a young Moldovan woman escaped from a brothel and was taken by police to a Podgorica safe house for victims of human trafficking. There, she began to tell a story of over three years of incarceration, during which time she said she was beaten, drugged, raped and sexually abused to such an extent that at one point her injuries confined her to a wheelchair. Crucially, she identified deputy state prosecutor Zoran Piperovic and three other men as being among those she encountered.


The four men, who vigorously deny the claims, were arrested on November 25, 2002 and released a few weeks later, pending a final decision on whether charges would be brought against them.


The decision to place Vukovic in charge of the investigation was greeted with some scepticism within legal circles in Podgorica. Her youth and relative lack of experience as a judge would make her vulnerable to pressure from those wishing to sweep the scandal under the carpet, it was thought.


But Vukovic had other ideas. Believing that she had collected sufficient evidence for a prosecution, she turned the case over to the state prosecutor, Zoran Radonjic, in January 2003. In May, Radonjic ruled the case wasn't strong enough to warrant legal proceedings. His decision provoked an outcry and fuelled suspicions that the government's reluctance to investigate the case suggested that officials were indeed involved.


In an attempt to contain local fury and criticism from the international community, the Montenegrin deputy president, Dragan Djurovic, asked the OSCE and the Council of Europe to mount an independent inquiry into the case. Their report was submitted to the government last month. Its contents have not been officially disclosed, but a number of leaks claim that the authors pointed out shortcomings in the procedures adopted and recommended that the case should be reopened.


Assisted by allies within the media, the Montenegrin government has always sought to portray the trafficking case as a political conspiracy, cooked up by its opponents and aided and abetted by members of the international community. Faced with new pressure to reopen the case, Medenica opted instead to remove both Piperovic and Radonjic from their posts on October 31.


The trafficking case was not reopened, however, and Publika announced its "Sex, Lies and Video Tapes" story, which prompted Vukovic to respond with her own series of allegations.


Minister of Interior Milan Filipovic has insisted that Vukovic was not followed or bugged. "I did not issue any orders to place [her] under surveillance or tap her telephone calls, as she was never of any interest to state security," he said. "Telephone-tapping requires my personal approval and is only ever used in criminal investigations." He challenged Vukovic to produce solid evidence, so her claims could be properly investigated.


A statement from the security services adopted a more threatening tone, implying that Vukovic will face charges against her if she doesn't substantiate her allegations. "We call on Judge Vukovic to name those members of the security services who she claims have followed her, blackmailed her, tried to co-opt her, smeared her and otherwise undermined her personal and professional reputation. If she cannot do so, we will hold her responsible for behaviour which itself constitutes a crime, and will be made subject to the appropriate proceedings."


A confrontation looms, as it seems that denials and rebuttals will not satisfy those demanding an investigation into Vukovic's claims, while the judge herself says she is ready to produce evidence to back them up. Recalling the government's decision to appoint Vukovic to the case, one observer commented, "That turned out to be a fatal mistake, because Ana Vukovic has shown herself to be an independent judge."


Boris Darmanovic is IWPR project manager in Podgorica.


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