Europe, Headlines, Human Rights

BALKANS: Justice For All?

Vesna Peric Zimonjic

BELGRADE, May 4 2011 (IPS) - Serbia has been reforming and transforming its justice system to more closely emulate international and European models, but the concept of plea-bargaining for more lenient sentences has led to unprecedented protest in the country.

The most recent protests were sparked by the decision of the prosecutors’ office here to make a plea deal – a common practice abroad – with Svetlana ‘Ceca’ Raznatovic, the most popular folk music star in the Balkans, who had faced up to 12 years in prison for embezzlement of 2 million euros and 3.5 million dollars.

The 38-year-old diva pocketed the money in the period between Aug. 14, 2000 and May 5, 2003, after completing a deal to sell 10 players of her ‘Obilic’ football club. The club reported no income from the transfers, and the players got very little.

The deal offered by the prosecution said Raznatovic admitted guilt and in return received a fine of 1.5 million euros plus house imprisonment of 12 months. She will be under electronic surveillance 24 hours a day.

“Deals are a novelty here, but they are provisioned by a new law [on criminal proceedings],” Slobodan Beljanski, a lawyer here told IPS. However, the deals have led people here to believe that not all of us are “equal before the law,” Beljanski said. “In this case, it is exactly such a bad message that is being sent to the public.”

“The amount is the highest a single person will contribute to the state budget,” Tomo Zoric, spokesman for the prosecution said, defending the deal before local reporters. He also reminded the public that the new Law on Criminal Proceedings provides for such deals.

“We have saved a lot of money for the state by making the deal, as the court process could have lasted for quite long and been expensive,” Zoric said. He also stressed that the enormous popularity of Raznatovic “had nothing to do” with the deal that was reached with her defence following her admission of guilt.

“This deal represents a case where one profited from the crime,” prominent lawyer Slobodan Batricevic, a former judge, told IPS. “Raznatovic will pay 1.5 million euros to the budget, but she profited for many more millions. Profiting from the crime is unconstitutional, illegal and immoral above all.”

“This dangerous precedent can indicate that rich and famous could avoid being punished completely,” said law professor Vesna Rakic Vodinelic.

The deal with Raznatovic caused outrage within the Central Prison in Belgrade almost immediately after it was announced. Some 350 inmates awaiting trial at the detention centre began a hunger strike, demanding the prosecution make a deal with them as well. The end of strike was negotiated with inmates’ lawyers a week after it began – with some being promised consideration of a deal.

There was particular outrage not only because of Raznatovic’s deal, but also because of her controversial past.

“She seems untouchable,” sociologist Ratko Bozovic said. “And that looks particularly unfair to many Serbs,” he added, referring to the fact that Raznatovic is the widow of notorious Serbian warlord Zeljko Raznatovic-Arkan. Their love story and marriage dominated Serb tabloids from 1995 until his in 2000. Raznatovic-Arkan’s paramilitary units committed a number of atrocities in the wars of the 1990s in Croatia and Bosnia.

This isn’t the first run-in with the law that Raznatovic has successfully ducked. She was arrested in March 2003 because of her connections with the underworld figures that organised the assassination of the first reform-oriented prime minister of Serbia, Zoran Djindjic. One of her best friends, Milorad Lukovic Legija, who masterminded the assassination, was alleged to be hiding in her house after the killing. She was released due to lack of evidence after spending five months in prison.

Under the new Law on Criminal Proceedings, dozens of accused have made deals with the prosecutors’ office – but mostly for minor offences that could result in sentences of one or two years in prison. So far, only 11 people have been given a deal for house imprisonment and electronic monitoring – most of this group had endangered public security either in street fights or by carrying illegal weapons.

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