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North Macedonia’s President Urged to Block Sudden Criminal Law Changes

A platform of anti-corruption civic associations in North Macedonia on Thursday urged President Stevo Pendarovski not to sign law changes that the country’s parliament passed on Wednesday night in a speedy procedure.

In an open letter, the platform said Pendarovski has a duty not to sign the changes, as they were passed in an inadequate procedure and would undermine the fight against corruption – and the public’s trust in it.

“If the changes are not vetoed by the President, they will result in many high-profile cases, such as Titanic, Target/Fortress, TNT, Titanic 2, Trezor, Talir, Spanish Steps, Trajectory, as well as numerous lower-profile cases, becoming expired,” the platform warned.

The noted cases are ongoing high-profile cases in which former political leaders and officials are being investigated, charged or tried for various forms of “misuse in office” and “criminal enterprise”.

The amendments intervene in these exact offences by lowering the prescribed sentences and rendering many of them expired.

As Pendarovski ponders whether or not to veto them, the abrupt passage of the amendments, proposed by the Social Democrat-led government and voted through by the ruling parties, has caused alarm.

The State Anti-Corruption Commission on Thursday said it was “surprised and worried” by the way the amendments were passed, without a proper public debate, and said this would jeopardize legal security in the country.

“The fight against corruption will remain just declarative,” the commission said.

Key ‘abuse in office’ cases may become obsolete

The key change that caused the ruckus is the scrapping of paragraph 5 of article 353 of the Criminal Law, which envisages prison sentences of at least five years for “abuse in office” in public procurements that damaged the budget.

A large number of former state and government officials have been prosecuted under this article over the past few years, and numerous cases are still ongoing, either in the investigation or trial phase. By scrapping this paragraph, active proceedings in them will cease and inactive ones will expire.

A second key change is made in article 394, which regulates the crime of “criminal enterprise”. Instead of the previously prescribed maximum sentence of 10 years, the change reduces that to three years.

The now defunct Special Prosecution, SJO – which was set up to examine criminal allegations contained in the thousands of illegally recorded wiretapped conversations by the former secret police, leaked by the then opposition and now ruling Social Democrats in 2015 – launched many of its proceedings against former officials on the basis of this article.

These cases have been meanwhile transferred to the regular prosecution and a number of them are still ongoing.

In the cases codenamed Talir 1 and Talir 2, for example, the country’s former PM, Nikola Gruevski, was suspected of illegally funneling money intended as donations for his VMRO DPMNE party into private endeavours.

Gruevski, who took power in 2006 was ousted in 2017 as a result of the outcry from the release of the wiretaps, is now a fugitive from justice in Hungary.

In the case known as Titanic, which is ongoing, Gruevski and other officials, including former ministers from his then cabinet, are charged with election fraud during the 2013 local elections.

In the case codenamed TNT, Gruevski was sentenced to nine years in prison in absentia for the vengeful demolition of a building constructed by a former ally who had meanwhile switched political sides.

With the new Criminal Law changes, all of these cases and more would either become obsolete, saving Gruevski and many officials from serving time, or would soon face obsolescence and so end without verdicts.

The government, in its explanation for the changes submitted to parliament before the vote, insisted that they were being done to align the criminal code with EU regulations, and to modernize it.

For example, it claimed that article 394 was outdated, originating from the past Yugoslav era. It noted also that the article contained an “abstract incrimination”, which may lead to “different interpretations” in different cases, and thus needed to be changed so that more specific criminal acts could be added to the Criminal Law instead.

Paving the way for constitutional changes?

But many posit a different explanation for the abrupt move.

Three opposition ethnic Albanian parties, Alternativa, BESA and Democratic Movement, at a joint press conference on Thursday raised suspicions that the government had “made a deal” with Gruevski, so that he and many former officials could avoid prosecution and jail in return for securing his possible help in swaying some opposition MP’s to support a key constitutional change. This would see Bulgarians listed among the state’s founding peoples.

“A government that flirts with Gruevski, for whatever interests, is not deserving of the people’s trust anymore,” the three parties said.

The Social Democrats, who have a slim majority in parliament, are in a tight spot when it comes to the constitutional change that needs to be voted on roughly by November, if the country hopes to avoid its EU accession being vetoed again by neighbouring Bulgaria.

The ruling parties are estimated to lack at least eight MPs for the necessary two thirds-majority. They hope these votes may come from the ranks of the VMRO DPMNE-led opposition. The opposition however, now led by Gruevski’s successor, Hristijan Mickoski, has remained adamant that it will not support it.

Mickoski also criticized the abrupt law changes, and insisted they were being done to protect current government officials from criminal prosecution, once they lose power.

The government’s first vice PM, Artan Grubi, however, claimed that Mickoski himself had insisted on these changes during recent meetings between the leaders of the main political parties, launched earlier these year in a bid to find a consensus over the constitutional change.

In 2018, when it supported an amnesty for those who attacked the parliament in 2017, the Social Democratic government, then led by former leader Zoran Zaev, faced similar accusations of trading with the rule of law to reach the political goal of implementing the change to the country’s name, as agreed with Greece.

Soon after the amnesty, which pardoned prominent VMRO DPMNE activists and members, parliament reached a two-thirds majority for the name change – thanks to the support of several VMRO DPMNE MPs.

Source : Balkan Insight