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Serbia's Judicial System in Need of Repair

It has been 15 months since former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic was ousted from power. Now, democratic Serbia is still digging its way out of what observers say was the corruption and criminalization of society, that occurred during the 12 years of his leadership.

Gary Collins heads the Rule of Law department at the Belgrade office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. His office recently established a judicial training center, where prospective Serbian judges and prosecutors are being tutored in their professions.

Mr. Collins, who has done similar work elsewhere in the Balkans, says for there to be judicial reform in Serbia, judges must be paid more money. "Judges cannot live on $120 per month," he says. "Any man or woman making $120 a month will do what they have to do in order to survive. So you're talking about a predisposition to corruption. Does it exist? Absolutely. It cannot not exist [under these circumstances]."

By all accounts the judicial system in Serbia is in desperate need of repair. Commercial lawyer Dragan Karanovic says systemic overhaul is required. The current system, he says, is a patchwork where even superior courts can be over-ruled by lower tribunals.

"For us a big problem is that the judgement of the Supreme Court is not binding on the lower court. We really have to change that. Since any court can decide the very same matter totally differently," Mr. Karanovic says.

A case in point: the central bank and the finance ministry recently launched proceedings against Bogoljub Karic, one of Serbia's richest men and a close associate of Mr. Milosevic. The government sought over $25 million in back taxes from Mr. Karic, whose holdings include a television station, a bank, and a mobile phone company. After briefly fleeing the country, Mr. Karic returned to Serbia, after having obtained a lower court order overturning the government's charges. He remains a free man.

Gary Collins says judicial reform in Serbia is going to be a painful and long-term process. "One of the most difficult projects for the international community will be to assist the judiciary in getting back up on its feet so that we can have the rule of law in Serbia, and indeed in all of Yugoslavia. Judges, unlike a police force, can't be revamped in nine or 12 months," he said.

Another commercial lawyer, Irish national Patricia Gannon, agrees that boosting pay is essential to reducing corruption. "We have to look at a judiciary that is very seriously under-paid and it hasn't attracted perhaps the best caliber of lawyer up until now," she said. "We have to make the profession more attractive to people and this is going to take time."

While many Milosevic-era judges remain in place, several have retired and a speedier turnover is expected this year.

Serbia's judicial system is short of everything - from computers to skilled support staff. Public service in law has not been prestigious and the courts had little institutional power.

Foreign legal experts concede that Serbia's judiciary is a mess and that reforms have been excruciatingly slow. But, they add, the system here is not that much worse than elsewhere in the region.