|A prison near Skopje. Photo by: BIRN|
The newly-formed Committee for Protection of the Rights of Victims of the Judicial System, an NGO made up of former detainees, has launched a campaign to eliminate the misuse of pre-trial detention, accusing the courts of favouring powerful indviduals over ordinary people.
The NGO has calculated that out of some 250 detainees currently in pre-trial prisons, more than 100 have been kept there for over three months for no tangible reason as their alleged crimes are relatively minor.
Its campaign, entitled “Let’s Save Human Destinies”, is urging families of detainees held in pre-trial prisons for a long time or without substantial explanations to unite.
“The campaign aims to get in touch with the families, obtain and analyse the documents of the detainees who claim they are being held without grounds and submit requests to the courts for the replacing of detention with other alternative measures,” said Vane Cvetanov, the head of the NGO and a former detainee.
The Committee claims that the courts have much more lenient standards when it comes to high-ranking politicians and their associates who are currently being investigated by the Special Prosecution, SJO, for serious crimes ranging from electoral violations to illegal wiretapping and misuse of office.
Despite demands for pre-trial detention or house arrest for several former ministers and high-ranking officials involved in the six cases opened by the SJO, the Skopje Criminal Court has so far only ordered house arrest for the mayor of Bitola, Vladimir Taleski who is being investigated for alleged embezzlement.
“We want to encourage the courts and the judges to have equal standards towards all citizens, to have the same disposition towards privileged politicians and common mortals,” Cvetanov said.
The best known case of lengthy pre-trial detention in recent years is that of journalist Tomislav Kezarovski, who in 2013 spent six months behind bars before his trial.
He was accused of revealing the identity of a protected witness in a murder trial in an article he wrote in 2008.
Another prominent case involved the owner of now-defunct A1 TV, Velija Ramkovski, who spent over a year in pre-trial detention in 2010 and 2011 before being found guilty of financial crimes.
The Committee also complained of inhumane treatment in pre-trial prisons.
“We felt a disgusting stench from the sewers. There was only a small barred window in the cell and we were climbing on top of the beds just to be able to put our heads against the window so we can breathe fresh air,” recalled farmer Dusko Ilievski, who spent 12 days in detention.
“We got rotten food and old cans from the JNA [former Yugoslav People’s Army],” he added.
Ilievski was suspected of growing marijuana in his field but was later found not guilty.
BIRN contacted the Prison Directorate, which is part of the justice ministry, to get a response to the allegations. The Prison Directorate asked for written questions but failed to respond by the time of publication.
Some international and local human rights watchdogs have been saying for years that the authorities have been abusing pre-trial detention procedures.
The Committee for the Prevention of Torture in the Council of Europe has called the procedures for imposing and extending detention in Macedonia unclear. It has also noted overcrowding and poor conditions in detention cells.
The Macedonian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights has also complained of the misuse of pre-trial detention.
It said in a recent report that it was “especially concerned about the manner in which detention is imposed, even when the legal preconditions for it are not met”.