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The spectacular arrest of two senior judicial officials highlights the pervasive influence of the country's underworld.

BELGRADE, Serbia and Montenegro. The recent arrest of a Supreme Court judge and the deputy special prosecutor is the beginning of a determined drive to weed out corruption in the judiciary, the Serbian authorities have announced.

The arrest of Judge Ljubomir Vuckovic and Deputy Prosecutor Milan Radovanovic on 15 September is the most aggressive move against corruption in the judiciary since operation Sablja (Saber), launched in response to the assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic in March 2003.

Vuckovic and Radovanovic were remanded in custody for 30 days on 17 September, one day after parliament lifted their immunity in an emergency session.

TOP-DOLLAR BRIBES FOR TOP JUDGE?

Vuckovic is charged with taking a bribe in exchange for striking down a verdict against one of Serbia’s most dangerous criminal gangs. Radovanovic is suspected of having informed gang members about the ongoing investigation.

The six-member group from Krusevac was sentenced to a total of 37 years in prison in November 2004. The ringleader, Zoran Jotic, received a 12-year prison sentence, which he is already serving in Belgrade. Members of the gang were found guilty of blackmail, extortion, and beatings. They were arrested just two days after Djindjic's assassination.

The group's lawyers appealed, saying their clients had been blackmailed and harassed into making incriminating statements.

Vuckovic’s immunity from prosecution was lifted on the day he was expected to have recommended that the Supreme Court overturn the verdicts and immediately release Jotic. The police did not indicate the size of the alleged bribe, but Belgrade media give a figure of 200-400,000 euro.

Since Jotic's sentence could only be annulled with a majority vote by the five-member appeals council of the Supreme Court, it is not clear whether Vuckovic had offered or planned to offer some of this sum to his colleagues. The police have declined to comment on whether the investigation also involved other Supreme Court judges.

The Belgrade daily Politika reported on 18 September that Radovanovic admitted to investigators he had told Jokic's associates that their phones were being tapped and that an investigation was underway against them.

Radovanovic is one of the two deputy special prosecutors who presented the charges for the murder of Prime Minister Djindjic. Radovanovic’s role was largely formal.

The special prosecutor for organized crime, Slobodan Radovanovic (no relative), admitted that the arrest of his deputy was "a big professional blow." However, he insisted it would not endanger the Djindjic murder trial.

Serbian law provides for sentences of between one and ten years for accepting a bribe and between three months and five years for revealing a state secret, rising to 15 years in particularly serious cases.

The police said the judge and deputy prosecutor had been arrested after months of investigations.

So far nobody from the police or the justice ministry has explained how Jotic and the members of his gang had managed to obtain mobile phones in prison, which were then tapped. Jotic now faces charges of corruption and giving away of state secrets, as do six other individuals little known to the Serbian public. Three of the six suspects have been remanded in custody, and one is on the run. The other two have not been arrested.

Interior Minister Dragan Jocic praised the police for the operation. "I especially want to point out that our primary goal is to bring to justice all those who think that their position or wealth make them untouchable by the law," Jocic told Serbian state TV on 15 September.

Justice Minister Zoran Stojkovic said that the arrests were just the first steps being taken in the fight against corruption in the judiciary. "The arrest of two top judiciary officials comes as no surprise to me and I have said on several occasions that corruption has infected a large part of the judiciary," Stojkovic told the media on 19 September. "This is not a one-off action."

The justice minister has already sharply criticized the judiciary for slowness. Stojkovic had earlier said that the best solution might be to disband all courts and reappoint all judges as part of the process of adopting a new constitution, one of the preconditions set by Brussels before Serbia can sign a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with the EU.

Former Belgrade judge and defense lawyer Bozo Prelevic says that Stojkovic's idea "is not a bad one," but that "appointing credible judges requires a credible legislature." Parliament, he pointed out, "includes people that once repressed democracy and then moved to new parties just in order to stay in power."

The last time the Serbian authorities announced a crackdown on corruption in the judiciary was in the immediate aftermath of Djindjic's assassination. Back then, a district judge, Zivota Djoincevic, and a deputy public prosecutor, Milan Sarajlic, were arrested on suspicion of being closed linked with members of the Zemun criminal clan charged with the prime minister’s murder.

But the Sarajlic and Djoincevic cases highlighted the government's inability to fight potential corruption in the judiciary. In the end, Djoincevic was charged only with the illegal possession of a weapon and was acquitted even of that charge in May 2005. Sarajlic was charged with corruption in late May 2003, but the trial has repeatedly been postponed as Sarajlic fell ill immediately after the arrest, spending some time in a psychiatric institution.

Politicians also indirectly admitted their responsibility for the difficult state of the judiciary by trading harsh accusations about the influence of the executive over the judiciary. A former justice minister who currently leads the opposition Democratic Christians, Vladan Batic, said that the situation in the judiciary was difficult because the current minority government of Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica depends on the support of the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), led by Yugoslavia’s long-time president Slobodan Milosevic. Batic added that the Socialists were affecting the selection of judicial personnel and that this sort of personnel policy opened the way for corruption.

Stojkovic, the current justice minister and a member of Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), in turn accused Batic and several other former government officials of being responsible for a number of irregularities and influencing judicial bodies while they were in power.

The sums offered to judges make rooting out corruption a challenge. The presiding judge of the Supreme Court, for example, receives a monthly salary of some 800 euro. This looks generous against the 210 euro an average Serbian citizen takes home every month but is hardly a sum that would shield officials against temptations. Combating corruption, however, is a key element not just in Serbia's EU accession strategy but also in the project of insulating politics and the law from improper influence.

Prelevic believes that a recently completed national anti-corruption strategy should help in that fight. "Whether Serbia will become a modern European society or whether it will remain chained by corruption depends on the outcome of that fight," he added.

(TOL 22.ix.05)

 
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