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NEWS

Towards improved protection of fair trial rights in the Western Balkans

editor - February 4, 2015

Fair Trials has today published a communiqué following a roundtable experts meeting on fair trial rights in the Western Balkans, convened in Podgorica on 29th October 2014 with the support of the British Embassies in Podgorica, Pristina and Belgrade, Open Society Foundations and the Oak Foundation.  The meeting provided the opportunity for representatives from civil society organisations and bar associations from Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia to discuss the state of fair trial rights protection within the region and possible avenues for future collaboration, with a particular focus on the EU accession process as a driver for criminal justice reform.

The fruitful discussions identified a number of common themes, with patterns of fair trial rights violations, particularly at the police station, common across all represented countries. Participants, for example, reported:

  • insufficient notification of suspects’ rights which frequently leads to uninformed waivers of key rights like the right to a lawyer and the right to silence;
  • the lack of independence of defence lawyers attending suspects in the police station post arrest;
  • serious and pervasive violations of the presumption of innocence; and
  • lengthy pre-trial detention was also highlighted as widespread and a priority issue for many of the represented organisations.

Western_Balkans_countriesWhile recent reforms of criminal justice codes in the region have focused on increasing the efficiency of the justice system, the rights of the individual defendant were not equally considered. Such reforms have focussed on the introduction of adversarial features into previously inquisitorial systems, an intervention that participants reported had not always functioned to reduce case processing times as various actors in the criminal justice system, including defence lawyers and prosecutors, had not been adequately trained to implement such systemic changes

The participants hope that both EU and ECHR standards will eventually have a positive impact and reduce fair trial rights violations. It was noted particularly that the new EU defence rights directives could serve as guideline for reform as they codify and thereby clarify the varied, multi-lingual and constantly fluctuating case law from the European Court of Human Rights which has been poorly applied by judges across the region.

The EU accession process is recognised by all participants as a unique opportunity to encourage robust and systemic reforms of the respective criminal justice systems, but the process inspires mixed reactions among the public and political elites in the different represented countries, relating mostly to the stage in the process which has been reached. Serbia, for example, is forging ahead, with civil society mobilised to engage fully in the process, whereas in Kosovo, the focus is far more on accession to the Council of Europe with the EU process a secondary goal at present. Fair Trials and the participants explored a number of avenues for future collaboration, including the facilitation of networking opportunities for criminal justice experts in the Western Balkans with their counterparts in the EU, and particularly recently acceded EU countries, through the LEAP network. Further, participants note that Fair Trials and LEAP could provide an important bridge between civil society in Western Balkan countries, EU institutions and domestic governments with a role to play in the EU accession process.

Since the meeting in October 2014, Fair Trials has continued to work with its new partners in the Western Balkans. Late last year Law Reform Officer Rebecca Shaeffer spoke at an event in the region on Fair Trials’ work to improve defence rights protection within the EU, and just last week, Head of Law Reform Libby McVeigh spoke to a conference of Serbian judges and policy-makers, hosted by the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights, on the importance of lawful pre-trial detention decision-making as a mechanism for reducing overcrowded-ness in detention facilities. We look forward to welcoming representatives from the roundtable meeting at the Annual Conference of the LEAP network in Amsterdam on 6-7 February and that such ongoing collaboration will inform further action to improve fair trial rights protection within the Western Balkans.

You can download the communiqué here.

If you are a journalist interested in this story, please telephone Fair Trials’ press department on 020 7822 2370 or 07950 849 851. For regular updates follow Fair Trials on Twitter or sign up to our monthly bulletin at the bottom of the page.

If you are a journalist interested in this story, please telephone Fair Trials’ press department on +44 (0) 20 7822 2370 or +32 (0) 2 360 04 71.

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