At a press conference in June 2014 where Serbian prime minister Aleksandar Vučić announced dismissal of four heads of police administrations, he labelled Dragoslav Kosmajac ‘Serbia’s biggest drug-dealer’. This is an individual whose name no one dares utter out loud, said Vučić, and everyone is already familiar with the ties between Kosmajac and police and other services’ officers.
In November the same year, Kosmajac was arrested, but not for drug dealing. He was apprehended on suspicion of tax evasion, abuse of office by incitement, squatting and forging a document. Some media even dubbed him ‘Serb Al Capone’.
In the autumn of 2015, the Higher Public Prosecutor’s Office in Belgrade charged him with illegally appropriating a plot of land of about 7.5 acres. The indictment was referred back for amendment and then brought again last month, but has still not been confirmed. Another indictment from May this year alleged that Kosmajac evaded tax to the tune of about € 4,000, but it was thrown out in the same month as the First Basic Court in Belgrade found the offence in question to be a possible misdemeanour instead of a criminal one. The First Basic Public Prosecutor’s Office has appealed against this ruling.
Dragoslav Kosmajac case is not the only example in recent years where high-ranking state officials from previous governments and the current one would announce arrests, prejudice the outcomes of investigations and give estimates that a big new breakthrough in fighting corruption and organised crime has been made. For the time being, the results have failed to match the announcements.
Fear Is in the Air
In December 2015 police operation code-named Cutter, 80 persons were arrested, including former agriculture minister Slobodan Milosavljević and his associates, on suspicion of misappropriating about 7.8 million dinars in state funds. By late February all the detainees were released from custody, and the Interior Ministry filed 17 criminal charges against 93 persons by mid-June.
No Final Verdicts in Disputed Privatisation Cases
Politicians in power often spoke about the so-called ‘24 disputed privatisation cases‘ and acquisitions of state-owned companies as if these cases had already been closed. According to information available in late May, the Organised Crime Special Prosecutor’s Office established in four cases that no crime had been committed, whereas other disputed privatisation cases were still for the most part in the investigation phase. Not a single final judgment has been rendered in any of the pending cases, and only five trials are under way.
Following this police action, interior minister Nebojša Stefanović said the evidence collected was very solid and comprehensive ‘so that it wouldn’t happen again as earlier in the past to have to ponder if there was solid enough evidence, if the suspects were to be released, if charges were to be brought against them or if everything would fall through’.
He told a press conference that sufficient evidence was gathered and that he expected ‘the prosecutors’ offices and competent courts to do their job well as part of the ongoing criminal prosecution, resulting with convictions’.
Minister Stefanović did not grant a request for an interview to the journalist from the Center for Investigative Journalism (CINS).
Statements by politicians and public officials place a heavy burden on prosecutors’ offices and courts which are to handle cases where suspects have been labelled guilty in public thus creating an illusion that these cases have already been solved.
Whenever an expected outcome fails to come to pass, said the president of the Serbian Judiciary Trade Union, Slađanka Milošević, an opinion is created in public that prosecutors’ offices and courts are corrupt whereas the police have done their job. The rules stipulate that a prosecutor’s office is to issue instructions to the police to gather evidence, she explained, but the prosecutors may solely act upon what the police have incorporated in criminal charges.
Serbian deputy public prosecutor Goran Ilić said it is a problem when minister announces arrests as this gives an impression of everything being motivated by political reasons even though most often this was not so.
Serbian deputy public prosecutor Goran Ilić said there was a political influence on judiciary.
Photo: Media Centre
“The moment a prosecutor takes over a case, even the minister has no knowledge, nor he should have any knowledge of the developments in the proceedings, except in the event of the prosecutor’s complaint against a police officer’s failure to act as instructed,” explained Ilić.
In its March 2016 Report on Current State in Judiciary, the Anti-Corruption Council cited as one of the biggest problems the pressure exerted on prosecutors and judges who were receiving through politicians’ statements instructions and warnings as to what they had to do.
Recently published annual report by ombudsman Saša Janković also highlighted ‘a strong public perception, which is difficult to substantiate, that judicial and prosecutorial public offices are under a strong influence of the political authorities’.
To illustrate the point, both the Anti-Corruption Council and ombudsman cited the example of former Belgrade Special Court president Vladimir Vučinić who presided over a trial chamber in the proceedings against Miroslav Mišković. Following his decision to return temporarily the passport to Mišković, Vučinić came under significant pressure which was why he eventually re-established his practice as a lawyer.
Vučinić told CINS he would take the same decision again adding that he was guided by law and the principle of presumption of innocence in the process. He did not try to hide his disappointment over scant support by his colleagues going on to say that this perhaps was an opportunity to show some integrity.
“I think it’s fear. One should say it in public. Fear is in the air,” said Vučinić.
Media as Government’s Messengers
Some daily newspapers’ cover pages featuring announcements of arrests since December 2015.
For days, Miroslav Mišković was the main feature in tabloids’ cover pages and politicians often cited him as an example of the fight against corruption. In June Mišković received an intermediate judgment sentencing him to five years in prison over aiding his son Marko in tax evasion, but was acquitted on charges of corruption, i.e. abuse of office.
Media are carrying uncritically the opinions of strong political figures as to how specific trials should look like, said Miodrag Majić, a judge of the Belgrade Court of Appeals, and the judiciary is sometimes susceptible to this sort of pressure.
“For quite some time, the media have served as chief messengers of the executive authority telling everyone how they should behave, even which decisions to make. (…) If there weren’t susceptible judges and prosecutors in sufficient numbers to receive such instructions, this wouldn’t be so simple”, said Majić.
In Vladimir Vučinić’ s view, public officials have no authority whatsoever to comment on the proceedings which have just started.
“All those statements, particularly if they’re coming from the government’s top brass in this country, certainly may influence anyone coming into contact with a case in question – police, prosecutors’ offices and ultimately courts.”
Decade-Long Investigation without Confirmed Charges
For over a decade, investigations have been going on into the case of Bogoljub Karić, who’s been on the run, on suspicion of abuse of office and inflicting damage to Mobtel company partly owned by the state. Indictment against him has not been confirmed to date. In April, the Higher Court in Belgrade remitted the latest amended indictment to the Higher Public Prosecutor’s Office for an order to additionally amend the investigation.
Nenad Stefanović, a deputy prosecutor with the Third Basic Prosecutor’s Office in Belgrade, explained the pace of some proceedings might even be stepped up due to public pressure.
“The cases where there’s no either public or media pressure, except on the part of lawyers who are indeed in a hurry – well, those are the cases where I don’t know what the outcome will be”, said Stefanović.
Recently CINS published an investigation showing that a large number of cases were going on for too long and that they were plagued by adjournment of hearings, default of appearance by witnesses and amendments to charges brought. In late 2015, there was a backlog of as many as 583 criminal cases whose trials in Serbia’s courts of first instance lasted for over a decade.
Once the corruption trials eventually come to conclusion, the sentences are for the most part suspended, whereas more than half of all the judgments from 2013 through to 2015 were acquittals and nonsuits.
Politically Eligible People End Up in High Places
Except for using media as a mouthpiece for their targeted messages, politicians are exercising their influence on judiciary through appointments of judicial office holders. Fallout from the 2009 failed judicial reform, carried out by the then justice minister Snežana Malović, when a large number of judges and prosecutors were given their marching orders, is still being felt.
Palace of Justice houses three Belgrade basic courts and prosecutors’ offices as well Belgrade Higher Court and Higher Prosecutor’s Office.
Photo: Lazar Mrčanica
Majority of judges who were relieved of their public offices at the time by the High Judicial Council’s decision sued the state and most of them were granted damages for the time spent out of work unlawfully.
A criminal charge over alleged abuse of public office in the course of judiciary reform and the estimated damage inflicted of 1.5 billion of dinars was brought against the High Judicial Council members, but was thrown out in December 2014. The total damage inflicted on the state budget has never been established.
Fear of being removed from their offices at any given time by some executive authorities has been creeping into the prosecutors’ organisation and judicial authorities since 2009/2010, said prosecutor Nenad Stefanović.
According to Judiciary Trade Union’s Slađanka Milošević, prosecutors and judges today are intimidated by the failed judicial reform and the problem is no one’s been held accountable for blunders, “They’re so intimidated that they listen in even on politicians whispering.”
Public prosecutors are formally nominated by the Serbian Government, to which a portion of the candidates are put forth by the State Prosecutorial Council, whilst the Parliament ultimately elects them.
Prosecutor Goran Ilić said the election of prosecutors served as a conduit for letting off steam built up by politicians’ pressure on prosecutors’ offices where the appointment procedure was ultimately political in its nature.
“No one who hasn’t ingratiated himself with the current or any other government cannot be appointed to an important position in a public prosecutor’s office,” said Ilić and added that with this in mind other types of direct pressures were not necessary “given that only ‘politically eligible’ people end up in important senior positions”.