AIM: start

TUE, 27 NOV 2001 01:36:33 GMT

Purges in the Serbian Judiciary

Judges on the Pillar of Shame

Serbian Justice Minister Vladan Batic's decision to go public with a list of judges he wants dismissed for poor and irresponsible conduct, provoked public outcry and Belgrade magistrates have threatened to sue him.

AIM Belgrade, November 21, 2001

Serbian Justice Minister Vladan Batic launched at the beginning of November a long overdue campaign of firing judges who failed to adhere to the code of their profession, but in a rather awkward fashion. Namely, Batic went public with the names of judges who will be relieved of duty for various reasons, adding that the initiative is only the first in a series. His radical move was soon countered: 105 magistrates, among whom are some who were not on Batic's pillar of shame, are gearing up for a lawsuit against him for "verbal assault and conviction without trial." The Belgrade press has also been critical of the justice minister's move.

On Nov. 2 Batic said that in line with the law, he filed a motion with the Supreme Court for the dismissal of 58 judges with general jurisdiction courts for rigging elections, holding staged and politically motivated trials, and obtaining apartments and loans for purchasing apartments. The minister also asked that another 60 judges be removed for inefficiency, explaining that less that one-half of their rulings were confirmed by higher courts. Batic is also petitioning the Serbian cabinet to sack 70 magistrates who were in charge of trials of independent media outlets in the period when Slobodan Milosevic was in power and restrictive information laws were in effect. Back then, many media outlets were fined huge sums and some were financially ruined.

The Batic list also includes the names of 30 judges who will be asked to retire. The minister has also asked Serbia's public prosecutor to dismiss certain prosecutors, and called on court presidents to themselves file for the dismissal of judges they believe should step down.

Batic has substantiated his efforts by citing data on the catastrophic situation in the judiciary. Stressing that the people want "justice and bread," Batic also likes to underline that opinion polls show only one percent of people trust the justice system and that "200,000 cases are currently being processed by Serbian courts." Which, "when multiplied by the number of the sides in them, and members of their families, shows that about two million people are unsatisfied," Batic says.

No one says there is no need to bring some order to the justice system. But many object to how the matter is being dealt with the publication of names before guilt has been determined. This does not only bother the people who were mentioned. Even the Supreme Court of Serbia, which has relieved one of its members for substandard performance, condemned Batic's methods. Saying that the minister's initiative is "legal and legitimate," Supreme Court justices stressed that it was "improper to publish the names of judges likely to be dismissed before the Supreme Court president has initiated the process and the Court has established reasons for their dismissal."

One hundred and five Belgrade magistrates were even more harsh, and announced they would press charges against minister Batic "for calling for a lynch and conviction before trial." Batic's list contains the names of "only" 70 of them, who enforced Milosevic's repressive and notorious information laws. But their colleagues who are not marked for removal have also offered their support. They say that judges are supposed to abide by the law and cannot be held responsible for it being twisted. Had they refused to uphold the law, said Dragana Papic, president of the Magistrate Council, they would have been prosecuted!

The "cleansing" process has caused additional suspicion because the list of the judges whose removal was requested was compiled clumsily to say the least. According to Dobrivoje Glavonic, representative of the Belgrade magistrates, the list, which was later published by the press, contains the names of several judges who are no longer in office -- one magistrate has retired, three have become lawyers, two are working in the Commercial Court, and one in the Magistrate Council. The names of some judges involved in the information law violations have been omitted, but some have been included even though they had nothing to do with such trials, and some were listed twice. Batic's efforts encouraged Zoran Tomic, professor of Administrative Law at the Belgrade School of Law, to remind the minister of the purpose of his job. "The Ministry of Justice and Local Self-Government is only one of the administrative bodies presided over by the cabinet; this is to say that it belongs to the executive branch of power that has limited jurisdiction. It cannot be above the judiciary, it is no high priest of justice," Tomic stressed. Recalling the fact that the courts, as judiciary bodies, are supposed to be independent and answer only to valid legislation, Tomic underlined that judges "are not junior to anyone, not even the ministry in charge of the justice system, misdemeanor bodies and public administration."

Batic responds to all criticism by saying that he did not violate the law and that his initiative was welcomed by the people and by a number of court presidents. "Sometimes we reveal our dual morality one story is told in the presence of these judges, solidarity is expressed, but simultaneously information has been provided to corroborate requests that certain judges be removed. This was what prompted this initiative, which is in its every aspect positive, because the people perceive it as such," Batic says, determinedly defending his campaign.

Although the dismissal of certain judges has been requested, that does not mean that all of them will be dismissed automatically. Batic's proposals has to be debated by the cabinet (when magistrates are in question) and the Supreme Court (when regular judges are concerned), followed by the Serbian Legislature. The justice minister could encounter certain unexpected obstacles. An official of the Democratic Party of Serbia, Djordje Mamula, has said that such matters "should not be approached lightly," recalling that "we do not have 1,000 new judges, nor 1,000 new generals, as some people occasionally tell the public, creating an impression that it is a fait accompli, and that we only have to agree on whom to install in their stead."

It is no secret that Vojislav Kostunica's party does not have a very high opinion of the justice minister. But as of recently strange things have been happening to the minister, and they are seen as readiness on the part of the DOS parties opposed to Kostunica to let Batic "go down the drain." After a package of bills, including amendments to the Penal Code and new administrative fees, were rejected by the Serbian Legislature, he suffered another stroke of bad luck. Instead of a justice system bill long ago announced by his ministry, a package of judiciary bills prepared by Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia is up before the Legislature. The Justice Ministry's version of reforms envisaged slight purges of the system in addition to its reorganization. This is not part of the Democratic Party of Serbia's bill, and that fact seems to have prompted Batic to embark on what he calls "amputations in the justice system."

Vera Didanovic