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Serbia avoids corruption cases, investigator says

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Tue, 10 May 2011 12:32 GMT
Author: Reuters
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* Anti-corruption official alleges Serbian stonewalling

* Prosecutors said to be subject to political pressure

* Researcher says meets silence in following up cases

(Recasts lead)

By Adam Tanner and Aleksandar Vasovic

BELGRADE, May 10 (Reuters) - Serbian authorities routinely brush aside graft cases and the legal system is subject to political interference in the European Union applicant country, a top Serbian anti-corruption investigator said on Tuesday.

"Authorities are blurring the truth, pushing things under the carpet, expecting that the public and media will believe whatever they present as the truth," Verica Barac, head of Serbia&${esc.hash}39;s Anti-Corruption Council, told Reuters.

"So far the council has witnessed that prosecutors are not independent in their work and are totally under the influence of the executive branch."

Moreover, a study by a Dutch professor of corruption cases forwarded to prosecutors found it was very difficult to determine their ultimate disposition.

"Prosecutors cannot prosecute individuals with privileges, and moreover, prosecutors are often abused in feuding between tycoons and people in power," professor Petrus van Duyne said.

Corruption is a problem across the emerging Balkans, and the fight against graft is a key condition for progress toward eventual EU membership and a concern for foreign investors.

"While prosecutors and courts ignore reports and criminal charges filed by the council, they are remarkably fast in processing libel and slander lawsuits against the council and me," Barac, whose watchdog group can file criminal charges in corruption cases or advise the government, said.

"There are seven ongoing lawsuits against us. This is tesimony to pressure against the council which is allowed by government&${esc.hash}39;s position of ignoring us."

Charges of selective justice arose anew on Monday after a Serbian court approved a plea deal for pop star Svetlana Raznatovic, known as Ceca, under which she will avoid jail time on embezzlement charges related to the murky sale of soccer players on a local team she owned.

The Serbian Justice Ministry did not respond to repeated requests for comment, but on Monday Serbia&${esc.hash}39;s chief prosecutor Zagorka Dolovac promised new arrests.

"In the near future we will be arresting criminals in cases where people of Serbia were robbed and the state did not react adequately," she said on Serbian television.

STONEWALLING THE PROFESSOR

Professor van Duyne, who has researched corruption in Serbia for the past three years, said local officials routinely stonewalled efforts to learn about past cases.

He said he had attempted to follow the trail of about 70 cases investigated by the Anti-Corruption Council between 2000 and 2007. Of these, 53 went to a prosecutor&${esc.hash}39;s office, but then it had become unclear what happened next.

"We don&${esc.hash}39;t know what the status of these things is, there is just silence, monumental silence," van Duyne, a law professor at the University of Tilburg in the Netherlands, said. "It is not the silence of the lamb, but the silence of the incompetent."

"There are serious difficulties on the junction to police to prosecutor, from the prosecutor to the courts."

A United Nations Development Programme survey of 600 adult Serbians released in November found that doctors, police and state administration officials were the prime bribe recipients, with the average payment of 255 euros (${esc.dollar}365). A third of respondents said someone close to them had offered a bribe during the prior three months.

Serbian President Boris Tadic has spoken about the need to combat corruption, but van Duyne said little concrete action had resulted from such broad statements.

"There is no interest to get any insight into corruption in this country, from the highest levels on downwards, with a few islands of let us say morally concerned people," he said.

"Serbia stands out in most parameters above the other countries."

(Editing by Michael Roddy)

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