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Old 07-02-2020, 09:08 PM   #25
Soldier of Macedon
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July 1, 2020

The now defunct Special Prosecution has passed into legal history, leaving only memories of an ambitious attempt to dismantle North Macedonia’s ‘captured state’. With the entry into force of a new Law on the Prosecution in North Macedonia, voted in March, arguably one of the most important institutions in the recent history of this country, the Special Prosecution, SJO, has ceased to exist. Formed amid a deep political crisis under international mediation in 2015, and tasked with tackling grave allegations of top-level crime in government, the SJO set new professional standards and initially enjoyed huge support. Praised for standing up to then ruling VMRO DPMNE party and its authoritarian leader, Nikola Gruevski, hopes were high that the SJO would put an end to the widespread culture of crime and corruption. But over the past few years, this image began to fade – and so did the hope that its many unfinished cases would see a legal conclusion. The SJO’s credibility was finally tarnished beyond repair by the “Extortion” scandal that broke out last summer. That saw the SJO’s chief prosecutor, Katica Janeva, charged and sent to jail for misuse of office in a first-instance verdict. All that was then left was to organize the SJO’s political burial, which came in the form of the Prosecution Law, which has closed it for good, and transferred its ongoing cases to the regular prosecution.

In February 12, 2016, the newly formed SJO held its famous first press conference amid extraordinary media interest, at which it revealed the launch of its first investigation, codenamed Titanic. The association of the name was clear – crime and lawlessness were about to sink to the bottom of the proverbial ocean. “Justice will win, despite the hardships and threats coming from certain political parties,” SJO chief Janeva boldly declared. It was a bold move also to demand the detention of eight persons in relation to the case, concerning alleged electoral fraud – and for none other than Prime Minister Gruevski himself and some of his closest associates. The courts later rejected the demand. At that time, Gruevski’s VMRO DPMNE party still held a firm grip in power, though Brussels had already deemed North Macedonia’s institutions as “captured” by his party, and massive anti-government protests nicknamed “The Colourful Revolution” were being held daily in the capital, Skopje, and in other places. At similar press conferences held over the years that followed, the SJO revealed more investigations against top officials, all beginning with the letter T – which in the Macedonian language is described as the “explosive consonant”.

Tvrdina [Fortress], Torture, TNT, Tenders, and others followed, cementing the SJO’s reputation as an institution determined to put an end to crime. The energetic press appearance starring the three female prosecutors, Janeva, Lence Ristoska and Fatime Fetai, who became the faces of the SJO and gained celebrity status, began to cause euphoria among the public and on social media. Understandably perhaps, after years of institutional silence, some of their statements bordered on the “tabloidization” of serious cases, prompting some to question whether Janeva and her team would truly deliver results at the end. Regardless, the three prosecutors, who one later BBC article nicknamed “Charlie’s Angels”, after the legendary TV crime series, began overshadowing the country’s politicians. News bulletins would open with their statements, and journalists often waited long in the night for the court epilogues to their requests for the detention of top figures. Much of the public saw the SJO as taking a defiant stand against their “captured state” and the many institutions that refused to cooperate with it, refusing to disclose information, or offer other help. The SJO prosecutors were fined for just about everything, but that did not stop them from opening new cases, some of which had been lying in the legal drawers untouched for years.

Their first investigations shook the very foundations of the state, which by then had spent more than ten years under Gruevski’s rule. People felt new hope for justice. The slogan of the “colourful revolution” – “No Justice No Peace”, was the slogan under which the struggle for justice was fired, and the trio of Katica, Lence and Fatime remained on their popular throne. In early 2017, as the fall of the Gruevski regime loomed, the SJO was finally transferred to its permanent offices in Skopje. By then, its teams were almost fully formed and the volume of work, based on thousands of incriminating wiretaps it had obtained about the Gruevski government, increased. Hundreds of witnesses, suspects and accused were summoned for conversations, including top officials who in the past had hardly ever frequented a courtroom, despite sometimes facing charges. Gruevski, his cousin, the former secret police chief, Saso Mijalkov, former transport minister Mile Janakieski and former police minister Gordana Jankuloska were just some of the people who had previously been seen as untouchable, but who had to show up for informative questionings before the SJO.

Because of the charges laid against them, these same people later became frequent visitors to the Skopje Criminal Court, where each day there were three, four or more hearings in relation to SJO cases. In one example, that speaks of the volume of work, in just one day in 2017, the SJO filed charges in 17 cases, sending huge boxes of evidence material to the court. But during all this time, even after VMRO DPMNE was ousted from power in mid-2017, two great dangers hung over the SJO. The first was the 18-month deadline to press charges, which was a provision inserted into the law on the SJO on the insistence of the VMRO DPMNE party. That law gave the SJO five years to investigate wiretaps but only 18 months from its launch to press charges. That deadline expired on June 30, 2017. Despite promises by the former opposition and now ruling Social Democrats, due to a VMRO DPMNE party blockade in parliament, it was never extended. By the time this deadline had expired, the SJO had pressed charges in 22 cases; BIRN’s analysis of the charges showed that the most frequent charge was misuse of office. The second danger to the SJO was an initiative submitted to the Constitutional Court questioning the constitutional grounds for the existence of the SJO as an independent institution apart from the regular prosecution.

While many then feared that the Constitutional Court could erase the SJO in one move, no one then imagined that the SJO’s demise would in fact come from a completely different place. Meanwhile, the Constitutional Court initiative has ironically outlived the SJO – and still remains, without epilogue. Most of the SJO’s own cases, including the key ones, also remain without epilogue. Its first investigation, Titanic, which concerned alleged electoral fraud by the former ruling party is still in the trial phase. The trial in another key case, Talir, concerning Gruevski and some of his top party officials, suspected of illegally financing the VMRO DPMNE party, only started in March this year. Arguably, the most important case of all, Target-Tvrdina [Target-Fortress], which aimed to reveal who stood behind the massive illegal wiretapping scandal centred on the Gruevski government – in which former secret police chief Mijalkov is one of the accused – is also nowhere near completion. The evidence in the case is still being presented. This opens the question about whether the SJO, with its ten prosecutors and well-funded team, should have pressed so many charges, or, instead focused on the most important cases.

While this dilemma remains in the realm of speculation, one thing is sure. The SJO’s team, with its unprecedented autonomy and high budget compared to other judicial institutions, showed what an institution on the front line against crime should look like. In contrast to their colleagues in the regular prosecutions, who have to wait in line for an investigator and administrative worker and have to rely on the good will of the police, some SJO prosecutors had teams of up to five investigators, which greatly boosted their effectiveness. Furthermore, the SJO kept the wiretapped materials in separate safes and under special security protocols. The way the cases were led allowed electronic records from each document received or sent by the SJO to be kept. Although in the past few years some of the wiretaps continued to be published, none of the material kept in the SJO was leaked to the public. Unlike other regular prosecutions, the SJO was also present on social networks, issuing frequent updates about its work, which at one time strengthened the trust it enjoyed among people. The public got reports about the SJO’s work every six months and heard updates about ongoing cases at the regular press conferences, including anonymous excepts from charges, the introductory and end speeches in courts, schedules of court trials and in some case graphical presentations that explained more complex cases.

All of this remains a “luxury” for the regular prosecutions. From the start, the SJO also had a known logo; its cases were not listed by numbers but were codenamed and so made much more recognizable for the public. Even today, googling SJO reveals over 2.6 million texts, analyses and videos containing the abbreviation of this now defunct institution, testimony to the enormous public interest in its work. The standards and efficiency the SJO set remain unmatched to this day by any other institution in the country. But the positive story did not last. As time passed, expectations about the SJO and its “special” status began to fade, along with the people’s trust. The first fatal blow came in January 2019 when the Supreme Court issued an “opinion” that the SJO had no longer the right to press new charges after its 18-month deadline had expired. This put the SJO in limbo, because the political provision that might have dealt with this problem remained stuck in never-ending talks between the government and the opposition – which refused to allow a vote on extending its life in parliament.

But the origins of its downfall predated that. Ever since late 2018 and early 2019, when the SJO, to the surprise of many, responded positively to the demand for release from detention of the wealthy businessman Orce Kamcev and of the former secret police chief Mijalkov – and allowed them to get temporary passports – trust in the SJO begun to erode. Kamcev and Mijalkov were suspects in the SJO’s so-called “Empire” case that dealt with suspected criminal association, fraud and money laundering. At the same period, especially after SJO chief Janeva was linked to the showman-turned-businessman Bojan Jovanovski, mainly thanks to social posts revealing their friendship, public criticism intensified of the SJO chief’s apparently close ties to a character associated with many controversies. The final demise of the SJO came in the summer of 2019, with the eruption of the so-called “Extortion” scandal. In this case, wiretapped video and audio recordings released in social media fed allegations that Jovanovski had extorted money from Kamcev in exchange for persuading Janeva to release him from detention. By last autumn, Jovanovski, Janeva and Jovanovski’s business associate all found themselves charged in the “Extortion” case, and Janeva had to resign.

The trial ended in June with Janeva found guilty and receiving a first-instance sentence of seven years in jail for misuse of office. But regardless of her personal guilt, one dilemma remains: should the new Social Democrat-led government have thrown the entire SJO under the bus together with Janeva? The passage of the new Law on Prosecution in February, which envisaged the closure of the SJO and the transfer of its cases to the regular prosecution, ended all hope of rebooting the SJO under a new chief and finding another legal way to prolong its work. The SJO has left 19 investigations open, involving more than 100 suspects. But for more than a year, these investigations have been in de facto hibernation, so their fate is uncertain. After the Law on Prosecution entered into force on July 1, the SJO became a dead institution. The professionals who worked there are now reassigned to their previous posts in the regular prosecutions.

Despite their formal reassignment, they stayed in the SJO building until the last day. SJO employees told BIRN that during the last days of this institution, in an atmosphere of disappointment and apathy, they were mainly busy organising the clusters of documents, computers and offices they were leaving behind. While the SJO now just a memory of an attempt to re-establish the rule of law, its unfinished cases are now, ironically, in the hands of the same regular state prosecutions that were not long ago widely mocked as servants of the politicians and as representatives of a “captured” state. The abiding public perception now is that no government in North Macedonia ever really wanted a truly strong and independent prosecution. The SJO, which failed to overcome the many political storms that struck it, remains just a living memory of a doomed struggle for justice. Its epitaph might well read: “We tried.”
In the name of the blood and the sun, the dagger and the gun, Christ protect this soldier, a full blooded Macedonian.
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