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December 7, 1996
. Vreme News Digest Agency No 270
The Law And The Regime

Who’ll Judge The Dictator

by Roksanda Nincic

The election fraud was revealed from the most competent place: for the first time in the history of this and the former Yugoslavia judges raised their voices over election fraud in the struggle for power. Assessments in both Belgrade and abroad said this is serious blow to the regime in Serbia. This is how it came:

"I don’t agree to a dependent judiciary in which the courts are used to clean up daily politics instead of being a symbol of the state of law", Supreme court judge Zoran Ivosevic said in his letter to the public on December 3.

"the most recent events over the elections for municipal and city councils with the involvement of many of our colleagues as chairmen or members of the election commissions and members of judiciary panels formed to rule on the legality of decisions by the election commissions have cast doubts on the honor and dignity of our profession and the reputation of the judiciary as a whole... It’s not easy for us and we feel humiliated in the knowledge that columns of people walk past our court building shouting thieves, thieves and throw eggs and break windows. We are very hurt by the knowledge that candles are being lit in front of some courts in Serbia with the shout: justice is dead." (Excerpts from a letter by Milan Subic, Milovan Dedijer, Zoran Ivosevic, Leposava Karamarkovic and Radosav Cosic, Serbian Supreme Court judges to Nasa Borba and Politika which was published only by Nasa Borba on December 3).

Others spoke up as well. Supreme Court judge Slobodan Vuletic, who voiced criticism over the election fraud on several occasions, spoke to Nasa Borba on November 25: "Citizens have a right to respond to ruthless lawlessness and violations of basic constitutional freedoms and rights by the authorities with constant mass resistance and civil disobedience including a peaceful blockade of institutions of power and vital social institutions and they can ask for the arbitration of international democratic institutions".

So what did the judges want to achieve by addressing the public? "In any case, the profession of judge is not a profession of thievery nor can it be regardless of which party is in power. If we find that there are judges like that among us their place can’t be with us and we distance ourselves from them", they said in the letter.

Law professors and other prominent lawyers who wrote to their expert associations said they did not want to enter into "whether this is a case of direct instrumentalization by people who enjoy direct benefits form the disregard for basic rules of the profession or whether we are still to close to the times when phones rang to tell many lawyers what the interests of the ruling party are or if this is a case of lack of expertise or something else." They insisted only on opening a debate in their professional organizations on legal actions in this case. If not, they said, "we will not longer be prepared to view the Serbian and Yugoslav lawyers’ associations as our professional organizations... But, we are prepared, and we consider this to be our professional duty, to inform as many members of the associations as possible of the reasons why we are leaving."

While Serbia rocks with dissatisfaction over the election fraud and few people dare predict how all this could end, VREME asked several prominent Belgrade lawyers to assess the reach of the reaction by their fellow lawyers.

Pavle Nikolic, professor of law at Belgrade university: "The gesture of judge Ivosevic and other Serbian Supreme Court judges is not just a reflection of their conscience and their feeling of being honorable as judges but also a scream, a call for the independence of the judiciary which is the sine qua non of a state of law. In the conditions of open dictatorship which Serbia finds itself in, establishing an independent judiciary and state of law are illusions, but those actions, which are also being made in other areas of public life, are not just a gesture of refusing to agree to the authoritarian character of the regime and its policies but a visible sign of the struggle to establish a state of law and democratic system in general. Things have started to crumble."

Jovan Buturovic, lawyer and former Supreme Military Court judge: "It’s right to say that there has never been a protest by judges like this but there has also never been such an obvious, dirty, harsh violation of the law. Even the former regime did things more elegantly. That challenged the judges and the public in general. The Supreme Court judges who signed the letter are honorable people and judges who enjoy a good reputation and care about the dignity of the profession and their personal honor and they do not want to be bundled in with the people who are service for the SPS or other state bodies. The profession of judge is special and can only be compared to the medical profession. What patients are to doctors, the law has to be to judges. Someone could criticize them for taking the right to criticize rulings they are not familiar with. But, they started from things that all cases have in common; you have to take the facts into consideration. I think there will be people who will side with them, most people will probably keep quiet and some will attack them. There are judges who don’t want to be independent, who don’t use the constitutional law they have at their disposal because that isn’t good for their careers. It’s better to listen to politics. Judges in Nis and other places who didn’t want to rule on the elections did not compromise themselves with fraudulent rulings but also avoided making a ruling under the law. That isn’t good either."

Gaso Knezevic, professor of law: "I believe that it took very great courage for the Supreme Court judges to publish their letter, the more so since their posts are very high up in the legal hierarchy. It draws a much higher level of responsibility. That means the courage of Ivosevic and the other judges is backed by that responsibility."

Radoslav Nedic, president of the Belgrade Lawyers’ Chamber: "The voice of the Serbian Supreme Court judges is the voice of conscience. The time has come when consciences must wake up. Judges can no longer remain silent observers of event in the judiciary because it’s obvious that the situation is a catastrophe. The election events were the last straw and they woke the conscience of people who didn’t think things were as alarming as this. We have to understand once and for all that the court is the highest instance in a state of law and that voice of judges is the voice of the law, justice and conscience. Judges who don’t have that voice don’t deserve to hold that post. We’re holding a special session of the Belgrade Lawyer’s Chamber management board tonight (December 4) to debate the letter by the judges. We believe the situation warrants us being in permanent session."

The Zajedno coalition filed a suit to repeat the proceedings in Belgrade’s first district court which ordered the third round of elections. Zajedno wants a repeat of the proceedings because city election commission records, contrary to the court ruling, said the commission ruled on SPS complaints. Evidence was submitted by Zajedno in the form of the records. On December 4, the first district court rejected the appeal saying something incredible: "The court feels that this new evidence is not legally relevant, i.e. that it does not hold importance to change the ruling in favor of the plaintiff had it been used earlier." The new ruling was signed by judge Dragoljub Jankovic, chairman of the judges’ panel.

Zajedno has already prepared a request for the Serbian Supreme Court to review the ruling.

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