Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Serbian Prosecutors Accused of Serving Politicians

All too familiar calls for judicial reform follow collapse of a case against Marko Milosevic.
By Momir Ilic

The collapse of a criminal case against the son of former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic proves the Serbian judiciary remains firmly under the thumb of those who wield political power, critics say.

The district prosecutor's office in Pozarevac, a town 85 kilometres south of Belgrade, dropped charges of extortion against Marko Milosevic in early August. Deputy District Prosecutor Dimitar Krstev said he abandoned the case because the alleged victim changed his story.

But observers say the decision was not only a professional blunder but also evidence of the close links between prosecutors and politicians.

Balkan Crisis Report, BCR, has been told by a senior source in Serbia’s judiciary that the charges were dropped when Krstev came under pressure from Serbian state prosecutor Slobodan Jankovic, who at a meeting in Belgrade ordered him to release Milosevic “in the best interests of the state and government”.

"Pressure was exerted on Krstev for over two hours. He was sweating profusely in an air-conditioned room, trying to put up some resistance,” said the source.

Jankovic dismissed all suggestions that the charges against Marko Milosevic were dropped as a result of political pressure.

Krstev, too, has denied coming under any political influence, and insists he dropped the case after the plaintiff, Zoran Milovanovic, came to his office and changed his story to say he had no recollection of a key incident in which Milosevic was alleged to have threatened him with a chainsaw unless he disclosed the founders and financers of Otpor, the opposition movement to which he belonged.

Otpor members have accused Milovanovic of changing his story under pressure from politicians. The witness’s mother recently wrote an open letter saying, "I don't want to be listed along with those mothers who have lost their children", but she did not specify who was threatening her son.

Marko Milosevic fled the country in October 2000 after the collapse of his father’s regime, and was sentenced in absentia to six months' imprisonment by the Pozarevac Municipal Court. A higher court subsequently reversed that decision and ordered a retrial.

Earlier this year, with Jankovic’s consent, a court withdrew an international arrest warrant for Slobodan Milosevic's wife, Mirjana Markovic, who had was facing charges relating to property in Belgrade. She has since left the country.

Belgrade lawyer Slobodan Soskic says the cases against both mother and son reflect all too clearly the current state of Serbia’s judiciary and prosecution service.

"Prosecutors are straining their ears to hear what the politicians want, and they make their decisions accordingly. This proves that there is no continuity in the healing process within the Serbian judiciary, and also that that this area is great need of far-reaching, comprehensive reform," said Soskic.

Questioning Krstev’s judgement and motives, Soskic said it should have been up to the court to decide whether to drop the charges against Milosevic, "The prosecutor should have asked Milovanovic to repeat at the main hearing what he had told him, and thus allow the court to decide which statement it would place its faith in."

Professor Momcilo Grubac, an authority on criminal law who was the chief architect of the Criminal Procedure Act, which is supposed to guide the way prosecutors work, agreed that there was a political connection in both cases.

"The dismissal of charges against Marko Milosevic and the withdrawal of the international arrest warrant are mutually linked, and one may draw the conclusion that the courts and the prosecutors' offices are run from one and the same central location," he said.

Like Soskic, Grubac suggested that Krstev had acted in error. He said prosecutors should not drop criminal charges in cases where a guilty verdict has been issued, then reversed and a retrial ordered.

"Circulating a story according to which Krstev dropped the charges because the plaintiff [Milovanovic] changed his statement is a cheap excuse which can deceive only the ignorant,” said Grubac. “The plaintiff can say whatever he likes, but his own wishes have no bearing on the case. The prosecutor is not dependent on the plaintiff and must act in keeping with the law."

The high-ranking Serbian judicial source said the Milosevic and Markovic cases highlight the weaknesses in the current hierarchy of prosecutors.

"Prosecutors have no substantive independence, because [they are] obviously under the control of the executive branch of power,” said the source. “The justice minister can suspend the Serbian state prosecutor. If he has such powers over him, then he may exercise similar authority over the entire prosecution service organisation."

Critics say the hierarchical nature of the prosecution service is also conducive to abuse, since senior prosecutors enjoy virtually unrestricted power over their subordinates. They also worry that there is little hope of improvement, citing the most recent draft of the National Strategy for Serbian Judicial Reform, in which the prosecution office is described not as an independent body, but as part of the executive, and linked to the judiciary.

"We are doomed to have cases like Mirjana Markovic and Marko Milosevic repeated over and over again until after the prosecution offices are… removed from the executive branch which currently controls them," concluded the source.

Momir Ilic is a journalist for Blic newspaper and a regular BCR contributor.