‘Good lawyers and bad judges’ in Serbia team up to free iconic defendants

Stanko Subotić [Interpol]

‘Good lawyers and bad judges’ have freed the protagonists of a major cigarette trafficking affair, in a judicial case illustrating the myriad failings of Serbian law enforcement. EURACTIV Serbia reports.

The multiyear trial for cigarette smuggling carried out in Serbia during the 1990s finally got its epilogue this month. The primary defendant, businessman Stanko, aka Cane Subotić, is definitely a free man. Stanko was let go, even though a special court in 2011 considered him guilty as organiser of the smuggling.

By a decision of the Appellate Court in December 2015, Subotić was acquitted of the charges, partly due to a lack of evidence, and partly due to the statute of limitations.

Nonetheless, Serbia’s Supreme Court of Cassation said on 7 June that the verdict had been reached in spite of the law being violated.

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However, it also stated that the verdict would remain in force, and could not be changed to the detriment of the defendant. His trial cannot be repeated, as the law does not allow it.

Fast cash

Subotić had been charged with heading an organised crime group that smuggled cigarettes from Macedonia to Serbia in 1995 and 1996 and sold them to legal entities and indviduals. The group earned millions, causing the state budget an estimate €30 million in damage.

Subotić is one of the symbols of fast cash in the murky and complicated waters of transitional economies, which were the hallmark of the past two decades in Serbia and Montenegro, in which the 57-year-old ran business operations.

His name is mentioned in the company of nearly all influential politicians who have filed through the scene of the region over the past two decades, many of whom have pointed to Subotić as a criminal, although many had business ties to him as well.

Epilogue after eight years

The proceedings began on 19 May 2008, and according to the initial ruling of the Special Court in 2011, Subotić was sentenced to six years in prison as the organizer of the smuggling.

The Appellate Court overturned that verdict in 2013 and ordered a retrial. Two years later, Subotić was acquitted, with observers’ objections that the two years of retrial had been accompanied by numerous illogical issues in the proceedings, ending with the statute of limitations expiring for many pieces of evidence.

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The Appellate Court concluded that the acts committed in 1995 had exceeded the statute of limitations, and that there was no evidence of cigarette smuggling in 1996.

In 2015, the proceedings were delayed as many as four times, even though the possibility of the statute of limitations running out had been mentioned several months prior, the Belgrade press reports.

Alongside Subotić, his aides have also been acquitted of all charges, including former head of the Federal Customs Administration Mihalj Kertes.

“Stanko aka Cane Subotić had a golden combination: good lawyers and bad judges,” Belgrade’s Blic said in December 2015, following Subotić’s acquittal.

All the while his attorneys, not to mention Subotić, claimed that the process was staged and that it was an act of revenge by Serbian politicians. Stanko’s attorneys (a total of 20 represented 15 indictees), periodically held press conferences and fed the media substantial material, designed to present their client as a victim of conspiracy.

Procedural tricks

The Supreme Court of Cassation found that the Appellate Court had violated the law because it had not accepted key evidence against Subotić and his associates, while on the other hand the stalling of the proceedings resulted in the statute of limitations running out.

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The key evidence presented by the Public Prosecutor’s Office in the case against Subotić were photocopies of the documents dismissed by the Appellate Court as invalid, even though the law does not state that only a certified photocopy of a document may serve as evidence, reads the ruling of the Supreme Court of Cassation posted on its website.

Upon the announcement of the decision, the non-profit Crime and Corruption Reporting Network – KRIK said on 13 June that the question should be raised of accountability of the members of the Appellate Court chamber, who acquitted Subotić of cigarette smuggling charges.

KRIK said that the judges had excluded evidence from the proceedings, thereby enabling Subotić to evade responsibility.

However, on 14 June, Politika reported that none of the judges would answer in any way.

“A judge cannot be held accountable for their legal opinion. In that sense they are protected by the Law on Judges, the Constitution… If a judge, in this specific case, were to be held accountable, that would mean their impartiality was being threatened and, ultimately, their independence,” disciplinary prosecutor Mirjana Ilić told the newspaper.

Serbia is hoping that the EU will open Chapter 23 in its accession negotiations, on judicial and fundamental rights, in late June or at the beginning of July.

As part of preparations for EU membership, Serbia needs to set its judiciary on healthy foundations, as it needs to have an independent judiciary that will solve cases without political interference and corruption.

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