Wednesday

19th Jun 2019

Leaked report challenges EU line on Serbian judiciary

  • 'The entire decision review process was conducted only to satisfy form and is a schoolbook example of travesty of justice' (Photo: bloomsberries)

Serbia's reform of the judiciary system is riddled with inconsistencies, intransparent and subject to political pressure, a leaked report shows, in an assessment that sharply contradicts the official and happier EU account of the state of affairs in the Balkan country.

The verdict was delivered in a 23-page report written by local lawyers for the EU delegation in Serbia following seven weeks of monitoring, between 4 July and 28 August, of Belgrade's reappointment of judges.

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"The entire decision review process was conducted only to satisfy form and is a schoolbook example of travesty of justice," says the report.

It examines the work of the High Judicial Council (HJC) and State Prosecutorial Council (SPC), which announced in 2009 which judges and prosecutors would retain their jobs after a streamlining exercise to raise professional standards.

The shake-up was part of Serbia's internal reforms in line with EU rules, with Belgrade hoping to be rewarded with EU candidate status next March.

There were over 1,500 appeals to the judge decisions, overloading the constitutional court. The responsibility for the appeals cases was then handed over to the HJC and SPC, which were given clear guidelines on how to review cases. Work started in June.

However, according to the monitoring report, the actual process has paid scant attention to the new guidelines.

Complaints include the fact that those who initially took the decision to leave judges off the first list were participating in the review process, petitioners were given little notice about the date of the hearing, while spurious evidence, gathered late in the process, was used by the review board.

Attempts by judges to defend themselves in light of the review board's evidence were often thwarted on flimsy technical or administrative grounds.

The report details the guideline meant to be used for the judges review and outlines how they have been breached. "Both Working Bodies consistently violated this rule, constantly introducing new evidence, which arrived and were presented to prosecutors on the very day of the hearings," says the assessment of Article 4 on which documents can be used in the hearing.

Sometimes the hearings were held "after midnight, in some cases even at 3 and 4 am ... the waiting room is not equipped with any food/beverage and has only few chairs."

"It is the monitors' general impression that undue influence on the part of the executive has been acutely present in the course of the entire review process," the report says in conclusion.

It calls on the EU delegation to pressure the "relevant stakeholders" to allow monitors in to hear final reasoning justifying the decisions to keep judges off the list - a decision taken behind closed doors

EU contrast

In contrast to the monitoring report, the EU's most recent official assessment of Serbia was positive on this point.

"The review of judges has so far been conducted in a satisfactory manner. Despite some procedural shortcomings, the majority of decisions were generally taken in line with the guidelines," said a progress report in October, subsequently endorsed by member states.

"I have asked written questions to the commission on these discrepancies," Dutch Green MEP Marije Cornelissen said.

"I am hoping it's a mistake but they should have a good explanation," she said. "The monitoring reporting speaks of a 'travesty of justice. Now I can imagine they would not want to use that exact same phrase but saying that there is only perhaps some procedural hiccups is more than glossing it over."

The European Commission, for its part, said it never comments on leaked or unofficial reports.

"Everything that we have to say about Serbia and their reforms of the judiciary is in the progress report with the understanding that we are continuing to watch very closely what is done," said Peter Stano, its enlargement spokesperson. "The judiciary is a particular focus of the commission."

According to Cornelissen, the problem is not going to go away, however: "This [monitoring report] was from August. It is rumoured that there is one from November that is even worse."

Serbia and Montenegro face setbacks on EU path

Leaders are to grant Serbia EU candidate status in March 2012 provided it steps up talks with Kosovo, while Montenegro's membership talks will start in June pending a crackdown on corruption and crime.

EU links Serbia's candidate status to Kosovo talks

Serbia will win EU candidate status if it improves relations with Kosovo. Montenegro can start membership talks but only with the most difficult chapters first, the EU has said in its latest report on accession.

EU diplomats: Serbia to get candidate status

EU diplomatic sources say objections raised by Lithuania, Poland and Romania are not serious enough to stop ministers recommending that Serbia gets official candidate status.

EU split on Western Balkans accession

Europe's credibility is at risk in the Western Balkans, half its member states have warned - but EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said Albania and North Macedonia unlikely to start accession talks soon.

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