In her interview with Kurir, Minister of Justice Maja Popović said that a great deal of work is being done on the constitutional amendments, and announced that the citizens will vote on these amendments in a referendum to be held in the fall. She pointed out that the primary aim of the amendments is removing politics from the appointment of judges, presiding judges, public prosecutors, and deputy public prosecutors, and considerably improving the rule of law in this way. She added that Serbia will insist that all its citizens convicted at The Hague Tribunal serve their sentences in their own country.
Amending the Constitution is certainly the most demanding task of the Ministry of Justice. Since the Parliament approved the amendments, what do we need to do next? When will we have the final version of the text?
"As the National Assembly has adopted the Proposal to Amend the Constitution, the National Assembly's Committee on Constitutional and Legislative Issues should start work on the act on amending the Constitution, i.e. the so-called Constitutional Amendments, as well as the constitutional law on amending the Constitution. The Draft Amendments to the Constitution, which were prepared by the Ministry of Justice and which received a positive opinion of the Venice Commission in October 2018, as well as the Legal Analysis of the Constitutional Framework in the Judiciary, prepared by four professors of constitutional law, can serve as guidelines in their preparation. I hope that the text of the constitutional amendments and the text of the constitutional law will be ready in July this year. Following this, public hearings should continue at which all stakeholders can voice their opinions on the texts. We want this process to be transparent, and to explain to each and every citizen of Serbia why it is necessary to amend the constitutional provisions on the judiciary, and how they will benefit from this."
What is the role of the Venice Commission?
"If the text of the constitutional amendments, to be prepared by the Committee on Constitutional and Legislative Issues, is different from the text of the constitutional amendments prepared by the Ministry of Justice, we need to request another opinion of the Venice Commission prior to the adoption of the constitutional amendments in the National Assembly. This is the first time that an opinion on the text of the Constitution or constitutional amendments is obtained from the Venice Commission before being adopted by the National Assembly, which shows how much we appreciate this renowned Council of Europe body. The positive opinion regarding the Draft of the Amendments to the Constitution prepared by the Ministry of Justice is proof that we are on the right track and that we are ready to strengthen the rule of law in the best interest of our citizens."
What are the most important amendments and what is their desired effect?
"The proposed amendments to the Constitution are intended to remove politics from the appointment of judges, presiding judges, public prosecutors, and deputy public prosecutors, which will ensure more independence for the judges and more autonomy for the public prosecutors. This will doubtless contribute to strengthening the rule of law, and improve legal security in our country, making Serbia more attractive to foreign investments, which will in turn raise the living standard of our citizens. Rather than the National Assembly, the appointment of judges and presiding judges will be entrusted to the High Judicial Council, and the appointment of public prosecutors and deputy public prosecutors will be entrusted to the High Prosecutorial Council, which is what the current State Prosecutors' Council will be called in the future. The National Assembly will only be appointing the Supreme Public Prosecutor, which is what the title of the current State Public Prosecutor is going to be. According to the Draft, the High Judicial Council will have 10 members instead of the current 11; of these, five judges will be elected by their peers, and the National Assembly will appoint five prominent lawyers. The criteria for what constitutes a 'prominent lawyer' should also be stipulated in the Constitution. According to this Draft, the High Prosecutorial Council should be composed of four deputy public prosecutors, the supreme public prosecutor, four prominent lawyers, and the minister of justice."
The area of the rule of law receives frequent criticism in the reports by Brussels regarding Serbia's progress on its path to the EU. Do you expect different assessments once the constitutional amendments have been made?
"Amendments to the Constitution are the first and most important activity in the Action Plan for Negotiation Chapter 23, which other activities in this negotiation chapter depend on. If the amendments are made, that will certainly mean strengthening the rule of law and progress that Serbia will make in a very important area, which in turn means better assessments in the EU membership negotiation process. At the same time, this will make it possible to accelerate the process, as progress regarding the rule of law is a condition for opening other negotiation chapters, or rather clusters. The most recent statements by the European Commission indicate that efforts that Serbia makes in order to amend the constitutional provisions on the judiciary are appreciated. However, I would like to add that we are not amending the constitutional provisions on the judiciary because the EU requests that we do so, but because the rule of law and the democratization of Serbia's legal system are in the interest of our country and our citizens."
Is it realistic to organize the referendum – at which citizens would vote on the Constitution – in the fall?
"Given that a great deal of work is going into the constitutional amendments, it is realistic to expect that a referendum on amending the Constitution will be held on the fall. It is necessary to pass the new law on the referendum before that, to bring everything into line with the current Constitution. The law in question should have been passed much earlier, and the deadline for passing it was 31 December 2008."
How happy are you with what the authorities have achieved so far in the fight against organized crime and corruption?
"Serbia has had excellent results in this fight. In the past couple of months, the courts and public prosecutors' offices have been stepping up efforts in bringing the perpetrators of the criminal offences of corruption and organized crime to trial. As you could see, this month a high-ranking official of the Serbian Progressive Party has been taken into custody on criminal charges of high corruption, which sends a clear signal that no one is protected in this fight. I analyse almost every day the data on the number of persons suspected, accused, and convicted for the criminal offences of organized crime and corruption, and I think there are reasons to be proud. In order for the results of this fight to be even better, the Ministry of Justice has ensured a staff increase at the Prosecutor's Office for Organized Crime; in July and August, we will also approve a staff increase at the anti-corruption departments of the higher public prosecutors' offices in Belgrade, Niš, Novi Sad, and Kraljevo. In addition, the Ministry of Justice is currently improving the infrastructural capacities and obtaining computer equipment for these prosecutors' offices, which will modernize and facilitate their operation. The organization of relevant authorities, established through a rounded normative framework, has contributed to the efficiency of the fight against corruption and organized crime. The normative framework in question became effective on 1 March 2018, and has allowed significantly more efficient criminal proceedings in relation to these offences. Over three years into the implementation of this normative framework, analyses have shown that it has had excellent results."
A criticism that is often made about court proceedings is that they take too long. Does that mean that our citizens like to drag each other through the courts, or that we have errors in the system? Can this issue be resolved by amending the Law on Civil Procedure?
"Court proceedings take too long because some courts are overburdened at the moment. The Draft Law on the Amendments to the Law on Civil Procedure aims to ensure an equitable distribution of legal cases across all courts in Serbia, as this law will change the jurisdictions of the overstretched courts which are involved in the so-called class-action cases. It is for this reason that some judges have over 3,000 active cases, and hearings are scheduled as many as two years in advance. This is not sustainable, and the Ministry of Justice needed to respond urgently. This draft envisages that the jurisdiction for the proceedings related to these cases will be spread over all the courts in Serbia in whose areas the residences or headquarters of the parties to the proceedings are located. This will cut the costs of the proceedings, as citizens will no longer have to leave their places of residence to attend a court hearing in Belgrade or Novi Sad. In addition, this assignment of jurisdictions will ensure equal access to justice for citizens, as the courts will be evenly burdened rather than overburdened."
General Ratko Mladić's verdict has brought back into focus the issue of allowing those convicted at The Hague to serve their sentences in their home countries. Will Serbia launch such an initiative again?
"Serbia will insist that all its citizens convicted at the Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia serve their term in prison in their own country. We have full support of the President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić, in these efforts. The President has made it clear in his address at the latest Security Council meeting that Serbia will continue to fight for upholding the international law, that it takes seriously its commitment to cooperate with the Tribunal, but he also expressed concern over the fact that it is mostly Serbs that are convicted, while there have been almost no guilty verdicts for crimes against Serbs. Moreover, the conditions in which the citizens of our country serve their sentences are inhumane. They are not given adequate medical care, their right to be visited by family members is withheld from them, they are denied the right to outdoor activity during daytime, etc. All of these are basic human rights, guaranteed by a number of international documents, and yet they are denied to our citizens in the developed countries in Western Europe. Further, I think it is unacceptable that the requests by those sentenced for release on parole haven't been acted upon for years, as failure to act upon these requests for them practically means being sentenced to death, in light of their age and medical condition that they are in – itself often brought about by inadequate medical care."
Time off work
'I find the time for my family and a good book'
What do you do in your free time? Do you have time for a sport or a hobby?
"I try to find enough time for my family in addition to my work, and to spend all of my leisure time with them. As for sports, I must admit that, what with my family and work-related obligations, I don't have enough time to be actively involved in a sport. Sometimes I manage to find some time for a walk in nature. I also use my free time to read a good book, so at the moment I can consider that to be my hobby."
I. K/ Kurir.rs