Analysis 21 Dec 15

Serbian Judge’s Removal ‘Threatens Judicial Independence’

The removal of judge Vladimir Vucinic from Belgrade’s Special Court was a political move aimed at curbing judicial independence and will set back an important case against interior ministry officers, experts alleged.

Moma Ilic BIRN Belgrade
The Higher Court building in Belgrade. Photo: BETA.

The decision last month to remove judge Vucinic from the special chambers of the Higher Court, which deal with organised crime, corruption and war crimes,was intended to rein in judicial independence, experts told BIRN.

As a result of the decision by Higher Court president Aleksandar Stepanovic on November 30, a number of high-profile cases in which Vucinic was ruling will be sent back for retrial, because according to Serbian law, a trial should restart from the beginning if the president of the trial chamber is changed.

Vucinic was the presiding judge in the one of the biggest cases in the country - against several former members of the Interior Ministry’s Special Operations Unit for allegedly attempting to stage an armed uprising against the post-Milosevic government in November 2001.

The Special Operations Unit was an elite state security unit which has beenaccused of numerous war crimes and political murders in the former Yugoslavia.

The defendants in the case are all former Special Operations Unit commanders – Milorad Ulemek, alias ‘Legija’ and Zvezdan Jovanovic, both of whom have already been convicted of the murder of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindic, and Zeljko Maricic, alias ‘Gumar’, who has previously been convicted of the murder of former Serbian President Ivan Stambolic.

This high-profile case has lasted more than four years so far; a total of 54 hearings have been held, while the evidence and transcripts now run to more than 5,000 pages.

It was expected that the closing arguments would be heard next month, but due to the removal of Vucinic, the case will is likely to start again from the beginning.

However the Higher Court told BIRN that it has yet to make a decision about whether this will happen or not. It said that another potential option was to bring in another judge who could read through the evidence presented so far, meaning that the case would not have to be reheard in full.

The former deputy president of the Serbian Supreme Court, Zoran Ivosevic, argued that Vucinic was not removed for legal reasons.

“If judge Vucinic is a good judge, which I don’t doubt, and his transfer comes at bad time, ahead of a verdict, this can only be explained by political reasons. To be more precise, this was [an example of] political influence, which our judiciary still didn’t manage to rid itself of,” Ivosevic said.

The same fate may befall another high-profile prosecution at the Special Court in which Vucinic was a member of the trial chamber.

‘A dangerous precedent’

Experts warned that although the president of the court has right to decide which chamber a judge will work in, and in which cases, it is highly unusual to remove someone from their cases when they are in the final stage, just before the verdict.

The decision to remove Vucinic also raised questions because he is seen as one of the best judges in Serbia, with an impressive court record. Of all the verdicts delivered by Vucinic of the course of 10 years, the appeals court only annulled one.

“Bearing in mind all these qualities that judge Vucinic has, and bearing in mind that he was ruling in cases that were in their final stage, I would not remove that kind of judge from the special chamber,” Dragomir Milojevic, president of the Higher Court of Cassation, told BIRN.

Belgrade-based lawyer Bozo Prelevic said he was in no doubt that the motive was political.

“To senda case which reached closing arguments back to the beginning represents a huge cost to the state, the defendants and the witnesses,” Prelevic said.

“In essence, this is a move that questions the independence of the judiciary,” he alleged.

The Miskovic connection

Many believe the transfer of judge Vucinic is related to his decision in December 2013 to give Serbian tycoon Miroslav Miskovic his passport back during his trial for alleged involvement in organised crime.

Miskovic had been detained a year earlier – an arrest seen by the governing Serbian Progressive Party as one of its major successes in the fight against corruption. Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic called Miskovic an “enemy of the state”on several occasions.

Vucinic returned Miskovic’s passport during the trial, which was the correct decision legally but incurred the wrath of the Vucic administration because he demonstrated that he was prepared to go against the government’s wishes in the case, experts claimed.

“My belief is that Vucinic was transferred [from the Special Court] because someone didn’t like the fact that we don’t know how the trial ofMiskovic will end, basically that we don’t know if there will be a conviction in the case again Miskovic,” said Dragana Boljevic, the president of the Judges Association of Serbia.

Prelevic claimed that Vucinic was removed because he followed the letter of the law and ignored the political significance of the case, which the government was keen to see end in a conviction.

“The new political elite didn’t like the fact that the judge said he respected the law and made this decision,” he insisted.

According to Vucinic, three days after the decision to return the passport to Miskovic, he was invited to Higher Court president Aleksandar Stepanovic’s office.

Vucinic revealed details of this meeting at a disciplinary hearing, after Stepanovic decided to take disciplinary measures against Vucinic because he spoke to the media, which is against the rules of the court.

“Stepanovic told me that because of my decision to return the passport, I am no longer the president of the special chambers and that he will consider sending me back from the special chambers… to the regular chamber,” Vucinic told the disciplinary body.

Appeals rejected

After Vucinic was removed from his position as president of the special chambers, he appealed to the higher court, but his appeal was rejected. He also appealed to the Higher Judicial Council, which deals with assignments and complaints within the judiciary, but this was rejected too.

Stepanovic also appealed to the Higher Judicial Council, asking it to rule on whether Vucinic made a serious error by speaking to the media about the Miskovic case.

If Stepanovic’s appeal was accepted, Vucinic would have been removed permanently. However, the Higher Judicial Council said this was only a minor mistake and issued a warning.

Because of this decision, Vucinic decided in July this year to launch a motion at the Administrative Court, requesting that the warning be annulled.

“Through these proceedings at the Administrative Court I am just defending the independence of judges, which I am obliged to do by law. If I don’t get positive decisions from Administrative Court and then from the Constitutional court, I am ready to file a lawsuit at the European Court of Human Rights,” Vucinic told BIRN.

Since last year, Vucinic has no longer been a judge in the Miskovic case after it was merged with another case led by another judge.

Prelevic said that the Vucinic affair could be raised as a problematic issue during Serbia’s negotiations on EU membership, which began this month, because it casts into doubt judicial independence in the country.

“Is there anyone who can justify this damaging move?” he asked.

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