Serbia: rights and wrong

If it wants to join the EU, Serbia’s criminal justice system needs to be brought into line with international law

Alek Odell

Alex Odell, associate, Peters & Peters

The charges laid by the Serbian prosecutor against England Under-21s football players for their alleged part in the violence after England’s game against Serbia on 16 October will focus the world’s attention on Serbia at a sensitive time. The country has plans for full EU accession, but criticism it has received in the world of football for incidents of racism among its supporters will pale into insignificance if its criminal justice system, prone to corruption and a lack of independence, operates as it has done in the past.

The case of a businessman represented by Peters & Peters, a UK and Serbian passport holder, exemplifies the considerable challenges the Serbian system faces in adopting EU standards of criminal justice.

The businessman was imprisoned in 2011 after Serbian prosecutors charged him with quasi-political offences, strongly criticised by the EU’s official parliamentary monitor for Serbia, Jelko Kacin, as incompatible with EU rule of law principles.

While in custody, he has had limited access to a lawyer and investigative papers were kept under seal. Alan Bacarese, special counsel at Peters & Peters, personally visited him on numerous occasions and has described the conditions at the Central Prison in Belgrade as “truly awful”. The quality of his treatment at the hands of the Serbian authorities formed the basis of questions in the UK and EU parliaments and of an initial application to the European Court of Human Rights.

As a country that has been granted candidate status by the EU, and as a signatory to the European

Convention on Human Rights, the Serbian criminal justice system must meet international human rights standards and guarantee the right to a fair trial. This includes meeting the ‘Copenhagen criteria’, the membership criteria for the EU, which require applicant countries to have achieved stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities.

Serbia’s failure to meet these standards, demonstrated by its lack of prosecutorial or judicial independence from political influence, is of grave concern, and has implications for all who wish to do business there, regardless of their nationality. This businessman, it must be remembered, was a UK citizen who chose to make investments in Serbian businesses. He was exactly the type of highly qualified professional that a country such as Serbia should wish to attract as it moves towards full EU membership.

If charges are pursued, the manner in which the young English footballers might be dealt with by the Serbian authorities will have huge significance far beyond the sphere of criminal justice or sport. The treatment they may well receive will send a message to potential investors, the EU and the public. It may even be that the UK government has to politically withdraw its current support for Serbian EU accession if its own sportsmen are treated badly. This is one case where the Serbian prosecutor must play by the rules.