Vladimir Vucinic, a former judge of Serbia’s Special Court for tackling organized crime, has decided to quit. He has presided over some of the biggest organized crime trials in Serbia.
With more than 20 years’ experience under his belt, Vucinic’s track record in the Serbian judiciary is impressive. He was one of the judges that sentenced drug kingpin Darko Saric to a maximum sentence for smuggling tons of cocaine from South America to Western Europe. He sentenced members of the “road mafia” to a combined sentence of more than 130 years in prison. The group had allegedly been working the Serbian toll booth system to double-bill trucks with foreign license plates. Vucinic also sat on the trial against members of the former Serbian Special Operations Unit (JSO) over a mutiny they organized in 2001.
Despite this legacy, at the beginning of 2016 Vucinic was transferred to another department of the High Court – Serbia’s criminal court at Belgrade’s Justice Palace. The reason given was that his mandate had expired.
Shortly after, Vucinic decided to quit. He said he intends to work as a defense lawyer in the future.
The decision to resign from the profession is highly unusual given Vucinic’s successful judicial career.
What would make a reputable judge, hailed by many as one of the best, quit? Journalists from the Serbian Crime and Corruption Network (KRIK) asked Vucinic himself.
The decision, he said, was his way to avoid massive pressure he had been experiencing from his superiors in the Serbian justice system and to start a career somewhere he thinks he can be more independent.
The career-killing case
Miskovic, one of the richest people in the Balkans, was arrested with 10 others on December 12, 2012 and then indicted five months later over abuse of power and tax evasion. They had allegedly embezzled more than $39 million during Serbia’s privatization of highway companies in 2005. Miskovic was ordered into pretrial detention and his passport confiscated.
The arrest of Miskovic was considered one of the biggest achievements of the current Serbian government, headed by Aleksandar Vucic. The government and pro-government media boasted about Vucic’s success in fighting organized crime.
Vladimir Vucinic was president of the judicial council presiding over the case at the time. In December 2013, he made a decision which he says would be the catalyst for the pressure he now describes. He temporarily returned Miskovic’s passport so Miskovic could travel to London, UK.
“Miskovic had already been in custody for a while. On my table was a decision by the Constitutional Court saying he’d been held in pre-trial detention longer than allowed,” explains Vucinic regarding his decision. He said Miskovic was under the presumption of innocence in the case, for which a verdict is still lacking today.
Nevertheless, Vucinic set Miskovic’s bail at 12 million Euros (US$ 13.3 million) – the highest bail ever set in Serbia. Miskovic paid the bail, left the country, and later returned to Serbia.
From the moment of that decision however, Vucinic’s career as a judge started to go downhill.
Three days after, he was urgently called into the office of court president Aleksandar Stepanovic, Vucinic told KRIK. According to Vucinic, Stepanovic told him that he would be removed from the position of president of the organized crime department, but that he could return to the position if he took back his decision to return Miskovic’s passport. Vucinic says he stood by his decision.
By the end of the month, Vucinic says he was no longer president of the High Court’s organized crime department. He filed a complaint against Stepanovic, saying he was being pressured over a decision he had made by the president of the High Court.
“It is not allowed to influence a judge in any way,” says Vucinic, “and is it not influencing if you are told that it would be best if you retract a decision?”
Vucinic’s complaint was rejected. The high judicial council found that Stepanovic was not pressuring Vucinic.
“They said that the court president has a legitimate right to decide if I will be president of the special department, and that it was not a threat when he told me he would assign me back to the Justice Palace,” he says.
Vucinic told KRIK that after his failed complaint, he was given another office to work in and his official vehicle was substituted for “something smaller that even a bicycle could flip over”.
Tarnishing a reputation
Government-friendly media started to attack Vucinic. The tabloid Informer, known as a newspaper that runs pro-government smear campaigns, started to accuse Vucinic of being a corrupt judge. It alleged Vucinic had returned Miskovic’s passport “secretly”, avoiding procedure, and dubbed him “Miskovic’s judge”.
Vucinic says the media attacks have tarnished his reputation and damaged his family.
But for him the culmination of these attacks came when the oldest local daily, “Politika”, wrote that the organized crime prosecutor had not been informed about Vucinic’s decision. The article suggested that standard procedure had been breached. Vucinic says he called a journalist from Politika to tell her that, under Serbian law, he did not have a duty to inform the prosecutor of the decision.
Following Vucinic’s statement to Politika, Stepanovic initiated a disciplinary procedure against him, according to Vucinic, accusing him of publicly commenting on an ongoing trial. A judicial back-and-forth between Vucinic and the accusing disciplinary prosecutor followed, culminating in Vucinic receiving a public warning. Vucinic has appealed and is awaiting a decision.
Leaving the profession
Vucinic believes the ending of his mandate is due to his decision in the Miskovic trial.
“I know there are other judges, whom I don’t want to name out of solidarity, whose mandates have also expired but have been extended,” he said, adding that he doesn’t understand why his mandate was not also extended.
Instead of either remaining in the High Court’s organized crime department, or moving up to the Appellate or Cassation court as Vucinic says would be the normal career path for a judge, he was moved back to the Palace of Justice.
The consequences to justice
Vucinic’s transfer from the organized crime court has an effect on two important ongoing cases.
One is the case against Darko Saric. Saric appealed his 20 year prison sentence for cocaine trafficking and a decision on his appeal is currently pending. Saric’smoney laundering trialis also ongoing.
The trial against members of the JSO who allegedly organized the 2001 armed mutiny is also awaiting a verdict.
Vucinic was a judge in both of these cases, and the trials were nearing their end. With his 2016 transfer, however, both trials have to restart from the beginning.
This article is a part of KRIK project “Strengthening Transparency of Serbian Judicial System through Quality Reporting”, supported by Heinrich Böll Foundation in Belgrade