By Sinisa Jakov Marusic
The legal changes failed to pass on Tuesday after only about 30 MPs in the 123-seat parliament, mainly from the opposition Social Democrats, SDSM, voted in favour.
The proposed changes to the Law on Special Prosecution were intended to remove the prosecutors’ June 2016 deadline for investigations, while changes to the Law on Witness Protection were aimed at improving the security of witnesses.
Although the bills theoretically had a chance to pass, despite the opposition from the ruling VMRO DPMNE, MPs from the junior ruling party, the Democratic Union for Integration, who previously hinted they would support them, were largely absent from the parliamentary session.
SDSM MP Petre Silegov had called on ruling party MPs to vote for the two bills, arguing that it was “in the interest of the ruling party” to allow the Special Prosecution, SJO to do its work and prove all the allegations about wrongdoing by top VMRO DPMNE officials were wrong.
In February 2015, the opposition started releasing batches of covertly recorded tapes, which it said showed that the VMRO DPMNE-led government had been behind the illegal surveillance of some 20,000 people, including ministers.
It also said the tapes proved many criminal allegations against government members, including election rigging.
The revelation of the tapes sparked a deep political crisis that is still ongoing.
VMRO DPMNE chief Nikola Gruevski, who was prime minister from 2006 until he resigned earlier this year under an EU-brokered deal aimed at ending the crisis, has said the tapes were “fabricated” by unnamed foreign intelligence services and given to the opposition to destabilise the country.
The SJO was established last year as a result of the EU-brokered deal to investigate high-level crime and corruption.
VMRO DPMNE MP Ilija Dimovski told media after the vote that his party did not support the two bills because it was dissatisfied by the SJO’s recent moves.
He said that the party was offended by the chief special prosecutor Katica Janeva’s recent statement, during her hearing in parliament last month, when she said that the assembly was possibly illegitimate, due to an ongoing investigation by the SJO into electoral irregularities.
The ruling party also felt insulted by Janeva’s rejection of its request to submit an additional financial report on the SJO’s spending of almost one million euros. Janeva insisted that such a report could jeopardize their ongoing investigations.
The opposition, in the name of the SJO, has asked parliament to prolong the June 2017 deadline for the SJO to investigate all its cases and press charges, saying that obstructions had made extra time necessary.
“We have lost three months waiting for the approval of the [SJO’s] budget and the formation of the office. Then we lost another three due to the president’s pardoning [of top-ranking politicians and their associates],” an informed source inside the SJO told BIRN last week.
“We also lost additional time in moving because we got our offices one year late, and not immediately as it was envisaged,” the source added.
On April 12, President Gjorge Ivanov used his presidential right to issue pardons to halt criminal investigations into a number of top politicians and their associates, including VMRO DPMNE leader and former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski. He later retracted the controversial pardons under foreign and local pressure.
The opposition asked for amendments to the Law on Witness Protection after the SJO said it will improve security for witnesses – which could prove key to the investigations of some high-profile cases.
The SJO wants to have full jurisdiction over decisions about who should be placed under the protected witness programme, in order to better ensure their safety.
The law currently places such decisions in the hands of a five-member council, which comprises representatives of the Supreme Court, the Public Prosecution, the Justice Ministry and two representatives from the Interior Ministry.
The SJO has so far launched six investigations.
On September 15, it raised its first indictments in two cases but many more cases are in the pre-investigation phase.