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Serbia: Reforms Alarm Judiciary

Have Serbian judges escaped the iron grip of Milosevic only to be confronted by new masters?

Serbian judges who used to work under the thumb of ousted president Slobodan Milosevic now claim to be dominated by Serbia's new rulers.

New judicial reforms have failed to convince the judiciary they have won the independence they sought.

Critics in legal circles cite the pressure on the judges to join one or other of the parties in the now ruling DOS coalition, if they want to keep their positions.

In addition, they say, the minister of justice's proposal for the dismissal of 160 judges loyal to Milosevic did not follow the usual procedure, but was a form of DOS political promotion.

Judges are also unhappy over an official admission that legislative reforms had been hammered out in backroom political manoeuvres, although they concede the new laws could form the basis of an independent judiciary.

Serbia's 2500 or so judges had expected to join in a public debate over the proposed reforms before they were presented to parliament. As it turned out there was neither debate nor consultation with the legal authorities.

Nobody is even sure who designed the new legislation although the driving force was the Democratic Party of Serbia, DSS, led by the Yugoslav

president Vojislav Kostunica.

"We were all surprised when it was rushed through parliament - I had the impression that someone wanted to avoid asking the judges' opinions," said Radmila Dragicevic Dicic, a judge in the Belgrade District Court and member of the Executive Council of the Society of Serbian Judges.

Vladan Batic, the Serbian justice minister, admitted the legislation resulted from a political compromise between the DSS and the Democratic Party, DS, led by Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic. "The DSS put forward the new judiciary legislation and received DS support in exchange for letting through a new employment law favoured by DS deputies," he said.

Vida Petrovic Skero, president of the Belgrade District Court and also on the Executive Council of the Society of Serbian Judges, said, "The judiciary

continues to be a hostage of the executive. As long as Serbian judges are not fully in charge of the fundamentals we will have a servile and ineffective judiciary."

It was Batic who initiated a move in the supreme court to oust 160 judges deemed to have helped the Milosevic regime by careless and unprofessional work.

The minister's action angered not only Milosevic supporters but other judges all over Serbia who argued that Batic should not have revealed the list of proposed dismissals before their cases were heard by the personnel council of the supreme court, the only institution that can dismiss them.

Having their names flaunted in public, critics said, meant the judges had been condemned in advance of the hearings.

Gordana Mihailovic, president of second municipality court in Belgrade, said the process reminded her of the Milosevic regime which simply created its own judges. She argued that politicians should not make tactless remarks about judges, unsupported by evidence, before the supreme court had examined their case.

Vida Petrovic Skero warned that dismissal procedures would last a long time because the supreme court would have to discuss every single case behind closed doors. If it agreed to dismiss the judge, it would be up to parliament to deliver the final word after a public debate.

Already, several judges who were prominent under Milosevic have quit the bench to become lawyers.

One of the biggest judicial concerns over the new legislation is that judges will be reassigned positions as part of the reorganisation of the legal system.

The process of reassignment is currently in progress - scheduled to finish by the end of January - with judges feeling under pressure to show loyalty to the new ruling parties if they want to keep their jobs. Rumours circulating in the courts claim they may be required to join certain political parties if they want to feel secure.

Belgrade lawyer Borivoje Borovic appeared to confirm this. "From my contacts with respected figures in the judiciary, I heard that representatives of certain political parties are visiting the judges offering them membership," he said. "My colleagues and myself are personally aware that judges are postponing judgments to avoid antagonising political figures."

Supreme court judge Zoran Ivosevic, the president of The Society of

Serbian Judges, said, "The judges fear that some of them could lose their positions in any future reorganisation of the court."

Despite all the criticism, Batic said he was satisfied the judiciary was now truly independent.

Sinisa Stanimirovic is an editor with the Belgrade daily Nacional

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