Serbian Judiciary Under Attack

Furious premier hits out at legal system, claiming it allowed man suspected of bid to assassinate him evade justice.

Serbian Judiciary Under Attack

Furious premier hits out at legal system, claiming it allowed man suspected of bid to assassinate him evade justice.

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

A long-running conflict between the Serbian government and judiciary has escalated following the release and subsequent disappearance of a man suspected of attempting to assassinate Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic.


Serbian justice minister Vladan Batic announced a new initiative to restructure the judiciary on February 27 after judges freed the suspect on the grounds that there was no case to answer on the charges presented to them. The legislation will give the government greater power in selecting and appointing court officials.


This move has sparked a furious war of words between the government and the judges.


The Serbian government claims that the judges are "protecting" criminals, while the judiciary in turn accuses the authorities of trying to force political control on an institution, which has been struggling for independence since the fall of former leader Slobodan Milosevic.


The situation came to a head as a result of a traffic incident on February 22, when a truck driven by Dejan "Bugsy" Milenkovic narrowly missed a convoy of government vehicles including a car carrying Djindjic.


Bugsy was arrested and charged with stealing a vehicle and being in possession of false documents. But three days later, a Belgrade municipal court released the suspect, claiming that there was no evidence to back up these specific claims.


Serbia's justice ministry reacted with anger to this development, accusing the judiciary of inefficiency.


Two days later, the Serbian police changed the indictment against Bugsy, charging him instead with attempted murder. But by this time the suspect had disappeared, and is presumed to have gone into hiding.


This has enraged the government. At a press conference on February 28, Djindjic said that the "high level of understanding that our judiciary shows for suspects is an insult to the citizens. Judges who wish to protect criminals instead of the law should be relieved of duty".


But the Serbian supreme court dismissed these accusations, arguing that the courts must follow the constitution, and can only investigate the specific charges levelled against a suspect.


If there is no concrete evidence to back up the charges brought to their attention by the police, they have no choice but to dismiss them, they say. While the release of high-profile suspects angers the government and the population, judges maintain that they often have no other choice under the law.


The state-run Radio Television Serbia later revealed that Bugsy had been under police surveillance before the highway incident. Law enforcement sources told IWPR that officers may have been trying to buy time to build a case against some of the suspect's associates, and had pressed the lesser charge in an attempt to get Bugsy's superiors to "drop their guard".


However, the sources continued, this tactic backfired when the judiciary went strictly "by the book".


Djindjic was reportedly infuriated by the mix-up, saying, "[Bugsy] only needed to claim that he was a travelling salesman with no knowledge of the incident, and he was trusted".


He went on to claim that the judiciary was obviously not geared towards punishing crime, "Without the cleansing of the judiciary it is pointless for us, the police, the people and the government to take stronger action, as the final decisions are - like in any other country - at the discretion of the court".


But Pedrag Popovic, president of the Belgrade district court, told Radio B92, "The court cannot be held responsible for someone filing criminal charges for one thing, while the impression created in the public is that it has to do with something completely different."


There have been a number of such cases over the last two years, and analysts have seen a pattern emerging where a suspect - sometimes with a known criminal record - is arrested for one alleged crime, which is then dismissed by judges for lack of evidence, only for another, more serious, indictment to be issued some days later.


For example, following the murder of police general Bosko Buha in October 2002, a group of suspects were taken into custody and described by the government as "a terrorist group" intent on assassinating a number of public figures.


But one suspect, Dragan Ilic, was actually charged only with allegedly possessing illegal weapons and foreign currencies. He was released on bail following a guilty plea. It was only later that the police officially charged him with being a member of a "terrorist gang". An investigation is still underway.


Analysts agree that part of the problem would appear to lie with the police force, which seems unable or unwilling to gather the evidence needed for the judges to issue an indictment within the 48-hour custody period allowed to them by law.


This limitation often results in the release of suspects with known criminal records, which enrages the politicians and the media and inevitably leads to dissatisfaction with the judiciary.


The police argue that their hands are tied by changes to the penal code, which were introduced at the beginning of 2001. Before this, suspects could be held without charge for three days without the approval of the courts. This was changed to a maximum 48 days - with a legal representative present at all times during interrogation.


These new measures were designed to end abuses such as forced confessions, which were once common practise in Serbian police departments. But critics claim that instead, they have made the law enforcement agencies' task almost impossible, as they cannot gather the necessary evidence in the time allowed.


Judges claim that the Bugsy incident was not the first time they had come under political pressure to get a result without being given sufficient evidence. They accuse the government of damaging the reputation of the judiciary, and of trying to annul the freedoms gained by the legal establishment after the fall of Milosevic on October 5, 2000.


At that time, there was a desire to separate the authorities' executive control over the judiciary, and allow it more independence.


Judicial reforms, which became law at the beginning of last year, included the founding of an expert body called the High Council of the Judiciary which nominates judges and court presidents, and the Great Personnel Council that has the power to dismiss them.


However, these changes were short-lived. A new set of laws on the judiciary came into force in July 2002, which were criticised by deputy supreme council president Zoran Ivosevic as a step back to the government control of the Milosevic era.


"Now everyone is saying that the courts are setting assassins free, and to me this looks like a trap for the heads of the legal system, because they are continuing to insist on independence for the judiciary," said Ivosevic.


The country's constitutional court - the highest in the land - has blocked the implementation of the July 2002 reforms, and there are no guarantees that the latest changes to the law will not meet a similar fate.


It is uncertain how these conflicting positions will be reconciled, but the conflict is certain to make the government's announced crackdown on organised crime bosses a far more difficult task.


Jovica Krtinic is a journalist with weekly Reporter from Belgrade. Daniel Sunter is IWPR's coordinating editor in Belgrade.


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