One of the oldest pending cases in the Higher Court in Belgrade, the trial of Mira Marković and another ten defendants, has been dragging on for 13 years already. Hearings have been adjourned at least 50 times, and the whole case has been remitted for retrial at least four times, which is bound to happen once again in September this year.
Higher Public Prosecutor’s Office pressed charges against the defendants of involvement in an illegal allocation of state-owned apartments in the year 2000. The trial has since been marked by adjournment of hearings, default of appearance by witnesses and repeated amendments of indictment. The case against two defendants was dropped due to the lapse of the statute of limitations.
€ 2.3 Million Paid in Expenses Incurred by 22 Acquitted
One of the ongoing lengthy trials of the so-called Insolvency Mafia started in 2007 when 35 persons were charged. To date, 22 defendants have either been acquitted or had their charges dropped.
The cost of the criminal proceedings only for those acquitted borne by the Higher Court in Belgrade amounted to approx. € 2.3 million. Over the course of nine years, the length of the trial so far, the court has paid for expert witnesses, ex officio defence counsels and the costs related to witness testimonies.
The court also covered the cost of transferring the defendants from detention to the courtroom and it was also reimbursing salaries for four defendants totalling thus far about € 44,000. According to the law, detainees are entitled to receive up to a third of their previous salaries. Such an expense is borne by the entity which remanded them in custody – in this case it is the Higher Court in Belgrade.
Except for Mira Marković, the wife of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milošević and the Yugoslav Left political party leader, among the defendants were also Živka Knežević, former Serbian Government’s secretary-general; Mihalj Kertes, former head of the Federal Customs Administration; Branislav Ivković, former science and technology minister; as well as many others.
This is only one out of 583 pending criminal trials before Serbian courts whose length in late 2015 spanned a whole decade. Higher Court in Belgrade had a backlog of 38 such cases. There were many more 5-year-or-older pending cases – as many as 2,188 in aggregate in all criminal courts.
Years-long court proceedings endlessly defer meting out punishment for criminal offenders or, for that matter, prompt acquittal of those found to be not guilty as charged. At the same time, this creates a significant strain on the budgets of judicial institutions and further delays payment of damages to injured parties, be it the citizens or the state.
Center for Investigative Journalism (CINS) interviewees cited difficulties in bringing suspects, lawyers and witnesses to trials, excessive workload for judges as well as changes to the justice system resulting in remission of cases as the reasons for lengthy court proceedings.
Attending Hearings, Paying Lawyer and Wasting Time
Interpol arrest warrant for Mira Marković, the spouse of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milošević
The trial of Mira Marković and another ten defendants charged with abuse of public office for illegal allocation of apartments was scheduled to start a day after the assassination of prime minister Zoran Đinđić on the 13th of March 2003.
Marković failed to show up at the first trial hearing. Later it would turn out she had left for Russia which is why she is on trial in absentia. This would not disrupt the trial, however, the court proceedings unfolded at a painfully slow pace for other reasons.
Most of trial hearings scheduled for 2003 did take place and the defendants presented arguments in their defence. On the 27th of October the court ruled to retry the case due to “a lapse of time” as stated in the trial records.
In the following years, the trial hearings were often adjourned. In 2005 the hearings were adjourned at least four times. When eventually a trial hearing did take place on the 10th of November that year, the case was remitted once again due to “a lapse of time”.
Suspended Sentence for Judge after Ten Long Years
On the 11th of July, 2006, late in the evening, at a party following a football match in the village of Selevac near Smederevska Palanka, Milorad Mijailović fell onto a concrete slab and sustained grave injury to his head. In March 2015, the Higher Court in Smederevo sentenced a police officer, Nikola Šiljić, to six months’ house imprisonment for inflicting grave bodily injuries to Mijailović. Two and a half months in detention were taken into account when pronouncing the sentence. Another two policemen were given one-year suspended sentences for abuse of public office.
Marina Jovanović-Bajović, the then investigative judge with the Municipal Court in Smederevska Palanka, also received a guilty verdict as she had entered, in her capacity as on-duty judge, inaccurate information into the crime scene investigation record that night stating that a civilian had fallen on his own in order to prevent prosecution of the police officer for inflicting grave bodily injuries. According to the first-instance ruling, Šiljić was his husband’s friend.
In December 2015, the Appellate Court in Belgrade upheld the ruling in the part pertaining to what had happened, but amended the criminal charge against Marina Jovanović-Bajović from “violation of law on the part of the on-duty judge” into “aiding the perpetrator upon the commission of a criminal offence”.
Almost ten years on, she received a one-year suspended sentence. She refused to speak to CINS journalists.
Boban, Milorad Mijailović’s son, told CINS reporters his father’s health was very poor. In his words, the trial was protracted, “There were many police officers there, and then they would come to give evidence, and then the lawyer fell ill so he couldn’t do it… And so it was delayed, and I had to attend the hearings with my father. I’ve been bringing him to the trial hearings for ten years, first in Smederevo, and then in Belgrade.”
One of the most common reasons for adjournment of trial hearings was default of appearance by witnesses. According to the record of the hearing scheduled for the 23rd of March, 2006, witnesses Srđan Nikolić, Zlatan Peručić and Milunka Lazarević failed to appear although the official notes read that “the trial chamber president contacted by phone the female witness who promised to appear” in the courtroom.
The court records to which CINS gained access showed that not a single trial hearing took place in 2007, whereas the trial was adjourned at least three times in 2008. Thereafter, the trial chamber presiding judge retired and the justice system reform (election and re-election of judges) was launched, which further slowed down the proceedings.
From 2012 through to 2015, trial hearings were scheduled, but never held. In addition, indictment was amended several times – the last time in April this year. The case has now been remitted once again to the phase of pre-trial review and the trial hearing is scheduled for September this year.
In the meantime, the case against two defendants – Bratislava Morina, former minister for refugees, internally displaced persons and humanitarian aid; and Petar Zeković, former interior ministry official – was dropped due to the lapse of the statute of limitations.
Branislav Ivković, one of the defendants, argued the charges against him were trumped up going on to say that the decision to award one of the apartments had been made by a seven-member commission, but only he was indicted.
“I was attending hearings at least four or five times a year, paying lawyer and wasting time,” said Ivković in response to the CINS journalist’s question about the court proceedings.
Veljko Đurđić, a defence counsel of defendant Živka Knežević, said the excessive trial length was, among others, a consequence of an incomplete investigation, poorly collected evidence and amendments to the charges brought.
Indictment against Mira Marković was amended twice – in 2010 and 2016, respectively. Her lawyer Zdenko Tomanović said the 2010 amendment to the charges had been made only several days before the lapse of the statute of limitations, when the Prosecutor’s Office converted the criminal offence of illegal mediation into the abuse of public office.
Officials of the Higher Public Prosecutor’s Office were unwilling to comment on the case stating that this would be “inappropriate” and “counterproductive for the proceedings” in a reply to the request for an interview.
Neither the Higher Court in Belgrade would grant an interview request by the CINS journalist.
Criminal Charges from Previous Century
In the end of the last year, out of the total of 583 pending criminal cases older than ten years, basic courts had a backlog of 519 and higher courts another 64. The Higher Court in Belgrade had 38 such cases, two of which were over 15 years old. Other higher courts had fewer than five such outstanding cases in their backlog.
Ivana Ramić, a judge of the First Basic Court in Belgrade, said the priority was to complete the criminal proceedings as soon as possible, adding that the defendants are entitled to this. She went on to say that at times defendants and their defence counsels take advantage of their rights, hence longer trials.
Belgrade courts also rank at the top of list in terms of the backlog of 10-years-and-older cases in basic courts – 27 such cases in the First, 22 in the Second and 19 in the Third Basic Court in the capital city.
In late 2015, there were 2,188 pending criminal cases older than five years on courts in Serbia. The Higher Court in Belgrade had 240 such cases and the Basic Court in Niš – 214.
The trial which has been going on for almost eight years before the Higher Court in Smederevo has been attracting public attention in Serbia because of both its excessive length and the number of defendants. Charges in the so-called “Index Affair” were first brought in 2007, amended in 2008, against 89 persons, including Kragujevac Law Faculty professors. They were suspected of selling exams in exchange for cash or luxury items such as whiskey or perfumes.
Eight years on, there is no judgment in sight, hearings have been adjourned several times, and the case against almost half the defendants was dropped due to the lapse of the statute of limitations.
In the Second Basic Court in Belgrade, the majority of pending cases older than 10 years pertain to aggravated larceny and robbery.
Judge Dejan Garić, president of the Court’s Criminal Chamber, explained that the years-long duration of trial proceedings was often down to multiple suspects and injured parties in a single case, going on to say that it was not always possible to bring them all together for a trial hearing.
“The biggest problem is that we cannot find them at all at their registered addresses, hence we cannot take any other measures,” said Garić, adding that the trial would not proceed until after the suspects were tracked down.
Garić explained that checking addresses, which often entailed a flurry of correspondence with the police, might well drag on for over a month. Therefore, it would be a good thing, he said, to have some sort of a streamlined system whereby the courts could check themselves if a suspect was serving a sentence or what his address was.
Defence counsels also fail to attend the trial. They are entitled to do so under the law, but they must notify the court about the reasons for non-attendance.
Ivana Ramić, a judge and Belgrade First Basic Court spokesperson, said such a right was being abused once in a while by defence counsels, at times with the intent to exceed the statute of limitations, particularly in cases with many suspects and lawyers involved.
At times lengthy trials render meaningless the right to damages and presumption of innocence, she added, which may lead to a loss of trust in the judiciary.
President of the Judges’ Association of Serbia Dragana Boljević said judges had an excessive workload, and therefore, it would be hard to expect of a judge with a backlog of 250 or 300 cases to schedule more than three or four trial hearings per case a year.
“Most often a judge is overburdened and has not had the time to prepare the case in question,” said Boljević. “The judge is not quite sure what to do in a given case and at times he gets frightened by the gravity of the issue at hand so he postpones it a bit, just like any other person would procrastinate if it’s something really hard. It may seem terribly stupid to do so, but it happens because, after all, judges are also just humans.”