Montenegro: No Longer Fit to Judge?

Independence of judiciary questioned again, after judge bars all defence evidence in libel case brought by prime minister.

Montenegro: No Longer Fit to Judge?

Independence of judiciary questioned again, after judge bars all defence evidence in libel case brought by prime minister.

The conduct of a libel case brought by Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic against a leading opposition politician has once more fuelled heated debate in Montenegro over the independence of the judiciary.

Judge Branka Boskovic fined Liberal Alliance opposition leader Miodrag Zivkovic 8000 euro on July 5, following a trial in which she had refused to admit any defence witnesses or documents.

Djukanovic filed the suit in October 2003, after Zivkovic told reporters that the prime minister was a "voyeur", who had used the services of "SC", the Moldavian woman at the centre of a sex trafficking scandal which has rocked the Montenegrin political establishment.

The judge she rejected defence requests to call the prime minister as a witness, or to allow Zivkovic to defend himself in court.

President of the Montenegro Bar Association Stanko Maric acknowledged that judges do have the authority to admit or reject witnesses or documents, but he added, "The main task of a judge is to establish the facts and I don't see how that can be done without any evidence."

Lawyer Marko Dakic, a former president of the supreme court, said the verdict could be illegal.

"In cases of slander, the onus is on the accused to prove his innocence. To do that, he must show that he had good reason to believe the allegations he made were true. If the judge rejected defence evidence on this matter, then she was witholding a fundamental right from the defendent, which means that the sentence was passed illegally," he said.

Judge Boskovic confirmed that she had rejected 19 defence submissions, saying that the number of documents and witnesses would not have assisted the proceedings and it would have been "impossible" to bring most of them to court.

In addition to Djukanovic, the defence had sought to question both the manager of the safe house where SC took refuge after escaping from her captors, and the judicial official who had conducted the original investigation into SC's allegations.

The judge also barred the testimony of a former police minister, who was replaced after deputy chief prosecutor Zoran Piperovic was arrested for alleged involvement in the scandal. Piperovic was later released, after the state prosecutor controversially ruled that there was insufficient evidence to proceed with a trial.

She also refused to admit as evidence a report from the OSCE on human trafficking and a US State Department report on the state of human rights in Montenegro. Defence requests for access to all the records of the sex trafficking investigation were turned down.

Instead, Judge Boskovic reached her verdict on the basis of three witness statements made during that original investigation. The testimonies, which were read out in court, came from Djukanovic himself, from SC and Sladjana Vorotic, alleged to have been present at some of the orgies in which SC said she was forced to participate.

SC's testimony identified Djukanovic as a participant in the orgies, an allegation the prime minister denied. Asked by the defence if her verdict suggested that SC was lying and Djukanovic telling the truth, the judge confirmed that was the independent assessment of the court.

She denied that she had come under any pressure to find in favour of the prime minister, insisting that she viewed the case as a dispute between two equal citizens, Djukanovic and Zivkovic.

"I did not come under pressure. Every serving judge knows how to approach a case. Where there is a problem, it lies with us the judiciary, not with the authorities," she said.

But lawyer Lidija Bozovic pointed out that the ruling party appoints judges according to political affiliation and personal acquaintance, creating an obvious conflict of interest in cases such as this one.

"Judges and prosecutors stopped respecting their profession long ago and now see their role as to protect the authorities and those close to them. They don’t understand that their basic job is to uphold the law, not to protect individuals," she said.

She added that 100 items of defence evidence were rejected in a libel case brought by the prime minister against the daily newspaper Dan, which reprinted articles from Zagreb weekly Nacional concerning cigarette smuggling through Montenegro.

"In Croatia, Djukanovic’s suit against Nacional was thrown out - but here, Vladislav Asanin, the editor of Dan, was sent to prison," she said.

While Stanko Maric of the Bar Association does not believe the entire Montenegrin judiciary has been "tamed" by the authorities, he noted that "certain trials in the past few years have shown some judges not to be completely objective". With that in mind, he wondered if the authorities were exerting influence over which judges are placed on sensitive cases.

Former supreme court president Marko Dakic added that at 350 to 400 euro, the salaries of High Court judges barely cover the basic cost of living, another factor which could compromise their independence.

In his first comment after the sentencing, Zivkovic said, "This confirms that the judiciary has hit rock bottom. The abuses have now reached a level where we can seriously talk about 'private courts' and judges in the service of a handful of people in Montenegro."

In her summing up, Judge Boskovic insisted that Zivkovic had told "lies which could damage the honour and reputation" of Djukanovic and have "serious consequences" for the prime minister. She said the fine she imposed, the equivalent of almost two years' salary for a judge, was the lightest sanction permissible under Montenegrin law.

Nedjeljko Rudovic is a journalist on the Podgorica daily Vjesti.

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