New Serb Judges Under Scrutiny

Belgrade lawyers express concern over new judicial appointments

New Serb Judges Under Scrutiny

Belgrade lawyers express concern over new judicial appointments

The new authorities in Serbia say they have begun replacing judges and prosecutors that served the ousted Milosevic regime, in an attempt to establish an independent judiciary.

Leading Milosevic supporters have already gone and 17 judges dismissed by Milosevic for being "disloyal" have been returned to the courts by parliament.

But there are those who are worried about how the new authorities are going about their work.

Legally, it is the Supreme Court of Serbia that should have decided on who was to be dismissed. Critics say this process was sidestepped, in much the same way as regularly occurred during the Milosevic-era.

Miroslav Todorovic, a Belgrade district court judge sacked by Milosevic, says one party-controlled judiciary is being replaced by another.

Justice Minister Vladan Batic and the Chairman of the Council of the Judiciary Drago Hiber "pulled the list of dismissals out from their sleeves" as if they had already decided who was to go before consulting the Supreme Court, he said.

Anecdotally, evidence that many new appointments were sewn up before parliament, let alone the judiciary, got to consider the names, comes from other claims that lawyers close to the DOS ruling party chatted about their forthcoming appointments back in November and December.

There has also been surprise at who has not been appointed by the new authorities. Some were outspoken opponents of the Milosevic regime and considered by their peers as indispensable experts. One judge who asked to remain anonymous said: "Many are not even hiding their disappointment that the names that were a symbol of resistance to the previous regime have not appeared among the candidates."

He named Miroslav Todorovic and Slobodan Vucetic, former constitutional court judges, as prime examples.

Nevertheless, the proposed reforms have engendered an atmosphere of fear in the country's courts and prosecutors' offices. Many judges now dread the DOS dominated regime.

"People have become mistrustful - one is afraid to say anything in front of anyone, because you don't know if someone will tell on you," said a long-standing district court judge who does not want his name published.

An additional sense of malaise is to be found in the legal community over the government's handling of the various investigations into former Milosevic apparatchiks and the unsolved murders of their colleagues and other well-known figures.

They are irritated by statements made by figures in the DOS leadership who have been publicly accusing and sentencing certain members of the former regime in advance of the results of any formal investigation.

"That represents an obvious pressure on the judiciary," said Deputy District Prosecutor Milan Bojkovic.

But DOS is not solely to blame for the overall sense of discomfort. Some lawyers believe the mysterious death of the Belgrade investigative judge Nebojsa Simeunovic was a warning shot fired by the mafia and members of the old regime to all those who want to do their jobs properly.

Simeunovic worked on the unsolved murders of Federal Defence Minister Pavle Bulatovic and the senior police official Radovan Stojicic Badza. On the eve of the Serbian revolution of October 5, e latter rejected an order to detain several DOS leaders who were at the head of the citizens' protests.

Nevertheless, the government is keen to implement reform quickly, in order to show the international community that the judiciary is capable of dealing professionally with such difficult tasks as the trial of war crimes suspects, or even Milosevic himself.

To achieve this, there is much to be overcome. The reality is that the judiciary is buried under a pile of unresolved cases, suffers from a shortage of judges, a lack of discipline, inefficiency and corruption.

Former supreme court judge Zoran Ivosevic believes the Serbian judiciary is still not prepared for serious cases.

"The judiciary is compromised and awaits the cleansing of sins since it is stifled by a spirit of subordination and fear from the executive authority," he said.

Ivosevic is also skeptical about the proposed changes, "Politicians are wrong when they say that the changes will happen overnight. The spirit of subordination is in the mentality of current judges. It cannot be cured by decrees but by time. The judges have always listened to the voice of the current policy and often adjusted their verdicts to it."

Indeed, sometimes it is not the courts and prosecutors that should be blamed, but the police for blocking the work of the judiciary. In the Milosevic era, the police used to ignore demands from the prosecutor's office. That has not dramatically changed now.

A high profile example of this is the case of the murdered newspaper editor, Slavko Curuvija. Although material evidence about his murder has been handed over to the Belgrade District Prosecution Office, Deputy Prosecutor Sinisa Simic, who works on this case says that nothing has been done so far to resolve the crime.

"We have urged the police to establish necessary facts on this case, but have not received any answer from them. Not even after the interior minister was dismissed," he said.

He believes that the Law on Criminal Proceedings, which does not give the prosecutor the right to raise the question of the responsibility of the police, is a problem. Amendments will have to go through a very complicated procedure before adoption in parliament.

Reality dictates that the authorities need to react quickly. Current practice in the judiciary indicates that a lot of time will be required to put a destroyed judiciary back on track. But, will this happen if the new authorities do not refrain from electing new "yes-men"?

Sinisa Stanimirovic is an IWPR contributor

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