Serbia: Purging the Judiciary

Concern that independent-minded judges may lose their jobs in purge of legal system.

Serbia: Purging the Judiciary

Concern that independent-minded judges may lose their jobs in purge of legal system.

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

As the Serbian government moves to clean out judges who have been "touched" by the mafia, there are fears that a purge of the judiciary could be used to remove those who have been striving to build an independent legal system.

The deputy state prosecutor, Milan Saraljic, was arrested last week after the police found evidence that he was linked to the heads of the the Zemun gang. Chief suspects in the assassination of prime minister Zoran Djindjic, the crime syndicate is also believed to have been behind a series of political killings during the Milosevic era, including former Serbian president Ivan Stambolic, owner of the Dnevni Telegraf newspaper Slavko Curuvija, deputy police minister Radovan Stojcic Badza and Yugoslav airlines director Zika Petrovic.

After the fall of Milosevic, the Djindjic government inherited a politically appointed judiciary, including remnants from the preceding communist regime. Leading judges and senior law officers were dismissed and replaced with figures who had spent years opposing Milosevic. However, the purge did not extend down through all the ranks of the judiciary.

The first achievement of the newly-appointed judges was the adoption of laws making the judiciary and state prosecution independent. At the same time, pressure was mounting from the new authorities to get rid of the remaining Milosevic appointees, but with no legal framework to do so, the judiciary refused.

Angered by that refusal, the government tried to repeal the newly adopted laws, but was stopped from doing so by the Serbian supreme court.

The launch of the state of emergency has been used to retire 35 judges, most of whom are regarded as defenders of an independent judiciary. Judge Zoran Ivosevic, who spent years fighting the Milosevic regime and was dismissed in 2000, was among the seven supreme court judges in the group.

Serbian justice minister Vladan Batic has said that the investigation into Djindjic's assassination will be expanded to include the police, the judiciary and state prosecutors. Judge Djordje Mirkovic, president of the fourth municipal court in Belgrade, has been detained for questioning along with two of his colleagues. They are required to explain why they released Dejan “Bagzi” Milenkovic, a member of the Zemun clan who is suspected of trying to assassinate Djindjic in late February.

Prior to the Djindjic killing, a crackdown had started against the mafia, with a special prosecutor appointed to head the operation. Milan Sarajlic applied for that post, but state prosecutor Sinisa Simic removed him from the list of candidates after receiving a file on his deputy from state security.

Three days after Sarajlic's arrest, Simic was dismissed. Officially, he was forced to go as Sarajlic's immediate superior. Unofficially, he is thought to be too independent.

Leposava Karamarkovic, the president of the Serbian supreme court, was also sacked, on the grounds that she was incapable of managing the judiciary. However, Karamarkovic has recently represented a number of people who have been defending liberal laws, which the government has been trying to overturn.

Some in the legal profesfession have welcomed the dismissals. “Leposava Karamarkovic and Sinisa Simic are honourable people but they couldn’t cope in their posts. Most of these people are not mentally prepared for the challenge posed by the fight against organised crime. The mafia cannot be treated with kid gloves any more,” said Belgrade lawyer Dr Rajko Danilovic.

But while most judges applauded the arrest of Sarajlic, there is a feeling that the judiciary is being made solely responsible for a wider problem. “How can it be that the supreme court president and the state prosecutor hold such huge responsibility for organised crime while the justice and police ministries are let off the hook? By imposing these measures, the authorities have stepped in to become managers of the judiary,” said an expert in criminal law, who preferred not to be named.

Meanwhile, the new president of the supreme court Sonja Brkic and the public prosecutor Djordje Ostojic have said they will launch a fresh wave of dismissals in a purge which could include many whose crime is independence, not corruption.

The Sarajlic affair is certainly serious enough to provide a credible pretext for judicial sackings. The former deputy state prosecutor has been charged with lobbying and pressuring other members of the judiciary and obstructing all proceedings against members of criminal organisations. As number two at the Belgrade district prosecutor's office, he is suspected of having halted inquiries into Djindjic assassination suspect Milorad “Legija” Lukovic, after a shooting in 2001 at a birthday party for popular singer Ceca, the widow of slain gangster and paramilitary leader, Zeljko “Arkan” Raznatovic.

After his arrest, Sarajlic confessed that following meetings with judges, prosecutors, the police, state security and members of the government he sold information on to the mafia. He received 150,000 euro for revealing the whereabouts of a protected witness who had fled the country months earlier. The witness's name has not been officially released, but IWPR has learned that he is Ljubisa “Cume” Buha.

On friendly terms with the Zemun gang for years, Buha fled the country after the gang tried to kill him several times following a clash of interests. From abroad, Buha fed the media detailed information about the gang's activities and accused it leaders Legija and Dusan “Siptar” Spasojevic of a series of murders and abductions.

Following Cume's revelations, the government decided to crack down on the mafia. The Serbian police established contact with Buha and brought him back to the country under protection. Three days before the Djindjic assassination, he was interrogated by state prosecutors.

While Sarajlic abused his position to deliberately obstruct the course of justice, many judges argue that a lack of information from the police had been preventing them from passing the kinds of sentences the government sought. Prosecutors have already been reduced to the rank of spectators in the current fight against crime, a source in the top ranks of the Serbian judiciadiciary told IWPR. The police dominate proceedings and sometimes don't even invite prosecutors to attend interrogations, he said.

“We are already under surveillance and won’t be able to do anything independently,” commented a Belgrade prosecutor, who preferred not to be named.

Reports of forthcoming changes in the law, which will sideline the judiciary during investigations, have been met with concern in legal circles. “The police will dominate pre-trial proceedings. We will be under pressure to accept everything they produce and draw up charges under their guidance,” said a senior judicial source.

“This kind of procedure, where an investigation takes place without the supervision of a court, may work fine in stable societies, but is completely inappropriate for the conditions which apply in Serbia at present. We must not be swayed by current emotions to change the law or adopt one-off solutions. Once we do that we will be left with a partial judiciary and legislature," warned an expert in criminal law, who did , who did want to be named.

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