Analysis 30 Jul 13

Montenegro: Politicised Judiciary Delivers ‘Slow Justice’

The first half of 2013 in Montenegro saw attempts to reform a politicised judiciary but the country’s few war crimes trials seemed to make little progress.

Milena Milosevic
BIRN
Podgorica

Over the last several months, an inefficient judiciary has troubled Montenegro’s advance towards the European Union but it has also hampered the delivery of justice in war crimes cases.

“Given Montenegrin practicalities, some time will pass before we have an independent and efficient judiciary which delivers results. It will be the toughest part of the [EU accession]  talks,” Pius Fischer, the German ambassador to Montenegro noted in an interview in May, summarising the country’s greatest challenge on its path towards the EU.

In other words, Montenegro must depoliticise its judiciary if it wants to keep up the relatively fast pace of its EU integration. 

But by mid-July, MPs still hadn’t adopted constitutional amendments to bring about this change.

But a breakthrough might be in sight, because on July 10, there was an agreement on a new procedure for MPs to vote on appointing the supreme state prosecutor, a post which is seen as a key to the fight against organised crime and corruption and is perceived by the opposition as a weak spot in the country’s judiciary.

This solution aims to decrease the potential for judiciary appointments to become hostages to disputes between political parties and demands unrelated to the appointment itself – a problem which has been very harmful for Montenegrin politics as illustrated by the long-running failure to amend the 2007 constitution.

However, even if new rules are adopted, they would have to be properly enforced in practice in order for Montenegro to assure EU officials that political influence over the judiciary - a communist leftover maintained by more than 20 years of rule by the Democratic Party of Socialists - is now at an end.

Few trials, fewer verdicts

While EU officials highlight concerns that inadequate institutions prevent the efficient prosecution of crimes, local rights groups often raise their voices about specific, high-profile trials.

Although small in number, Montenegro’s ongoing war crimes trials have been accused of failing to deliver justice.

In early June, the appeals court confirmed the acquittal of nine former policemen who were accused of illegally detaining and deporting Bosniak refugees in 1992.

Following their deportation to Bosnian Serb territory, most of the refugees were executed, and local civil society groups hold the authorities responsible for failing to ensure justice for them.

The retrial of four former Yugoslav army reservists for alleged war crimes against prisoners at Montenegro’s Morinj detention camp in 1991 and 1992 ended with convictions this month, but another appeal is expected.

Apart from this, there is only one more war crimes trial ongoing in the country, and it still hasn’t delivered any verdict, four years after it started.

The trial of eight former Yugoslav Army officers, charged with killing 18 Kosovo Albanian civilians and injuring five others in 1999 during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, was virtually sent back to its starting point when the presiding judge resigned in late 2012.

Refugees without rights

Montenegro is still home to almost 12,000 refugees, Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic stated in June.

Most of them have been given the temporary administrative status of ‘displaced and internally displaced persons’, but because their final status remains largely unresolved, they still have problems getting work or accessing basic services like healthcare and education.

In January, the government proposed an extension of the deadline which would allow the refugees, if they failed to apply for the status of ‘foreigner with permanent residence’ last year, to do so by the end of 2013 - but the proposal has still not passed through parliament.

Housing for the refugees, particularly the Roma who fled Kosovo during the war in 1999, is also an acute problem, particularly following the fire which gutted the Konik refugee camp on the outskirts of Podgorica, where most of them live.

In November 2012, the Montenegrin government provided more than 800 refugees who lost their homes in the fire with more than 200 containers, but they spent the winter without electricity amid a row over an unpaid energy bill.

But there is hope that the country’s refugees could see some of their housing problems solved, with construction work on new apartments funded by foreign donors expected to start this September.

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