Topmost State Officials’ Statements are in Direct Violation of the Principles of the Rule of Law, Separation of Powers and the Independence of the Judiciary

January 21, 2020

The Belgrade Centre for Human Rights is deeply concerned by a statement made by Justice Ministry State Secretary Radomir Ilić by which he directly violated the principles of the rule of law, separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary. The BCHR hereby warns of the potentially grave consequences of his, as well as President Aleksandar Vučić’s recent comments on the work of the judiciary. Such statements presage the undermining of the very foundations of the constitutional order and the establishment of a constitutional and political system of governance in which the executive will prevail over the legislative and judicial branches formally as well. 

During his appearance on TV Prva on 19 January 2020, Ilić inter alia said that “courts and prosecutors have become an irresponsible branch of government, a closed system not subject to any external oversight … Instead of President Vučić appointing judges (like the French do), we here have judges and prosecutors sitting together with criminals…”. Ilić also dismissed allegations of political pressures on the judiciary and said that the Constitution needed to be amended to ensure external oversight of the judiciary. 

Such a statement by a senior government official came only a few days after Vučić criticised the prosecutor’s decision to discontinue an investigation, whereby he directly violated the constitutionally guaranteed principle of prosecutorial autonomy and the presumption of innocence of the individual who had been under investigation.

The BCHR appeals to all government officials to stop jeopardising the independence of the judiciary and calls on the High Judicial Council and the State Prosecutorial Council to rise in its defence. The populist rhetoric topmost state officials have been resorting to in order to discredit judges and prosecutors needs to be viewed through the prism of the constitutional reform launched back in 2017. 

The Chapter 23 Action Plan envisages the amendment of the Constitution and laws on the judiciary in order to ensure the independence of the judiciary and minimise any influence of the legislative and executive branches on the nomination, election, appointment, transfer and termination of office of judges, court presidents and (deputy) public prosecutors.  In 2017 and 2018, the Justice Ministry masterminded the drafting of amendments to the constitutional provisions on the judiciary.   To recall, the way in which it organised the consultation process gave rise to major doubts about the authorities’ genuine commitment to implement the constitutional reform with a view to precluding the executive and legislative branches’ influence on the judiciary. In mid-2018, the parliamentary Constitutional Issues and Legislation Committee endorsed the Government proposal to amend the constitutional provisions on the judiciary. However, the latest publicly available version of the amendments does not respond to the goals set out in the Chapter 23 Action Plan; rather, the proposed amendments are, to an extent, inferior to the valid provisions of the Constitution. 

Is it even worth asking what the Republican Public Prosecutor is doing in a country with crumbling institutions?