By Slobodanka Jovanovska
Just one year ago no Balkan country extradited their own nationals, allowing criminals with multiple passports to hide out in neighbouring countries. But as states are now signing extradition treaties, lawbreakers will find they have fewer safe havens.
Facing charges of abuse of office and misappropriating millions of euros from Macedonian state funds, former customs chief Dragan Daravelski decided it was time to move to another country.
He was able to do so because, like millions of people in the Balkans, he has dual nationality. His second, Serbian passport allowed him to slip out of Macedonia and set up a new life in Belgrade.
For the past decade, Daravelski has enjoyed a comfortable life in the Serbian capital, safe in the knowledge that he will not be sent back to Skopje because the two former Yugoslav states have not signed an extradition treaty.
This all might come to an end soon, however, as the Macedonian government is exploring ways to seize his assets in both Serbia and Macedonia, BIRN has learned.
“As long as we have a chance to find some properties in his name, we will continue to look. Time is not on our side and he is aware of that and is doing everything possible to hide them… We will also ask for his properties in Serbia,” says an official from Macedonia’s agency for seized assets, speaking on condition of anonymity.
On top of losing properties in both Serbia and Macedonia, Daravelski will also be anxiously awaiting the outcome of negotiations that could see Belgrade and Skopje finally sign an extradition deal by the end of the year.
Hundreds of others, including suspected war criminals, who avoided lengthy prison terms by taking advantage of the absence of extradition agreements in ex-Yugoslav republics, will also be nervously watching regional developments.
Pressure from the European Union – a club these states aspire to join – has seen Balkan countries begin to ratify bilateral extradition deals 20 years after the break-up of the former Yugoslavia.
On top of signing individual agreements, Serbia is leading attempts to establish a Balkans-wide extradition treaty modelled on the EU’s European Arrest Warrant (EAW) that has sped up extraditions within member states to an average of 48 days.
Daravelski was sentenced in absentia to seven years by Skopje’s Criminal Court in 2007 after being found guilty of misappropriating millions of euros of state funds and abuse of office while he was head of customs from 1999 until 2002.
An influential member of the then ruling party, VMRO-DPMNE, he was appointed by Ljubčo Georgievski, the former prime minister. But following a change of government in 2002, newly-elected MPs took a closer look at Daravelski’s activities.
They quickly discovered that at least 2 million euros of state funds were missing. Daravelski was accused of stealing the money and attempting to cover his tracks by filing fake invoices for services and goods never received.
The Macedonian authorities claim Daravelski amassed a huge personal fortune after using the stolen cash to buy property, one hotel and businesses across the region.
On hearing the verdict, Daravelski’s father and his lawyer, Tomislav Stojanovski, issued the following statement: “May God forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.”
Daravelski is perhaps the most high profile Macedonian criminal hiding out in another country, but he is just one of many suspected criminals believed to have evaded justice thanks to second and even third passports.
By mid-August this year, there were no less than 324 active international arrest warrants against Macedonian citizens who have slipped under the radar, probably to neighbouring countries, according to Macedonia’s interior ministry.
Bulgaria provides another safe haven for suspected and convicted Macedonian criminals who are seeking to avoid prison because Sofia almost automatically grants nationality to Macedonians, a people they regard as fellow countrymen.
Vladislav Tamburkovski has been hiding out in Serbia and Bulgaria for the past five years despite the fact he should be serving jail terms totalling ten-and-a-half years after being found guilty of misappropriating funds from four Macedonian companies.
Tamburkovski was employed by the Macedonian government to oversee the bankruptcy procedures for Macedonian companies that had gone bust. Instead of selling off the assets of bankrupt firms and paying their debts, he simply pocketed the money himself.
Once it was clear the state intended to prosecute, Tamburkovski left the country, having obtained not just a Serbian passport but a Bulgarian one too. He left Macedonia in 2006, resurfacing a few months later in the south-western Bulgarian town of Blagoevgrad.
He was tried in absentia and his current whereabouts are unknown but he is believed to still be in Bulgaria.
On the few occasions Skopje has requested the extradition of suspected or wanted criminals holding Bulgarian passports, Sofia has always refused, sometimes claiming the charges brought were politically-motivated.
Multiple Passports for Ex-Yugoslavs
Across the Balkans, millions of people hold two, even three, passports – partly as a result of the collapse of Yugoslavia that saw members of different ethnic groups bestowed with multiple nationalities.
“There were more citizens in the Balkans with two or several citizenships than those with only one. In most cases this was accidental due to the break-up of the former Yugoslavia,” notes Jovan Jovanovic, a war crimes expert at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s (OSCE) Serbian office.
Zagreb has issued passports to at least half a million ethnic Croat Bosnian citizens. At least one million Croats living outside the country hold a Croatian passport, according to research conducted by the Europeanisation of Citizenship in the Successor States of the former Yugoslavia (CITSEE) faculty at Edinburgh University.
In Serbia, CITSEE estimates there are half-a-million refugees from Bosnia and Croatia, all holding two, a few even three, passports.
While newly-independent states like Macedonia found themselves having to create institutions and legal frameworks from scratch, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of hardened criminals across the region took full advantage.
“The criminals from the former Yugoslavia remained connected as if the country never disintegrated,” says Tomislav Djurin, the Serbian ambassador to Macedonia.
Interpol has issued arrest warrants for more than 300 Croatian citizens who are safe from prosecution in the region because Croatia does not extradite its nationals.
Another 300 suspects wanted by Interpol, including ex-officials, businessmen, smugglers and war criminals, are currently living across the border in Bosnia.
“Bosnia is the most critical because our agreement for issuing citizenship is most liberal… [ethnic Serbian] Bosnian citizens are privileged in obtaining Serbian citizenship and vice versa. This provides a good opportunity for abuse by criminals,” says Miloš Oparica, director of the Serbian Interpol bureau.
The country is also regarded as a destination of choice for regional criminals because Bosnia is the only former Yugoslav state that has failed to sign any bilateral, regional extradition treaties to date.
Former Yugoslav states have only just begun to take action to prevent criminals from easily evading justice by slipping into other regional states in the last year.
The extradition of nationals suspected of committing war crimes has proven to be the biggest stumbling block to signing extradition deals in the Balkans.
Many states, particularly those involved in the bloody conflicts of the 90s, simply do not trust court rulings from other countries who want to prosecute their nationals. This is particularly so when it comes to the prosecution of citizens regarded as national heroes by their own side.
Jovanović at the OSCE in Serbia says the number of suspected war criminals who will be tried by other states is set to increase.
Croatia has charged 1,884 people in connection to war crimes committed on their soil during the early 90s, and handed down more than 500 verdicts. Serbia has indicted 143 people and convicted 67 people to a total of 802 years in prison.
Some Serbian critics say that Zagreb is issuing arrest warrants en masse against Serb suspects, to the extent that the stealing of animals and furniture during the war is treated as a war crime.
Zagreb was forced to revise many of the charges brought in the 90s after the EU complained that the judicial process was flawed and that a disproportionate number of Serbs had been indicted.
Despite this, the Croatian government has sought to undermine Serbian indictments, recently proposing the adoption of new laws that would dismiss war crimes charges issued by Belgrade.
The move has drawn sharp criticism, particularly from Amnesty International who published a statement in October this year calling for the EU to pressure Zagreb into improving its handling of war crimes prosecutions.
Following Amnesty International’s report, the EU sharply criticised Zagreb for its proposed changes to the law, claiming politicians are courting voters who are strongly against war crimes prosecutions ahead of the December parliamentary election.
Regional Extraditions Begin
Since the summer of 2010, however, most Balkan states have finalised or are in the process of finalising bilateral extradition treaties. Macedonia has signed deals with Kosovo, Croatia and Montenegro and agreements with Serbia and Bosnia are under negotiation.
Croatia has bilateral treaties with most Balkan states except Bosnia and, aside from the tabled Macedonia deal that was postponed because of this summer’s parliamentary elections in Skopje, Belgrade has only to reach an agreement with Bosnia.
As a direct result of the Croatian-Serbian extradition deal, Belgrade and Zagreb have begun to cooperate on the prosecution of serious criminals living in their territory.
In August last year, Croat national Srećko Kalinić became the first person to be extradited from Zagreb to Belgrade under the terms of the new agreement.
Kalinić was subsequently jailed for 40 years after facing charges including conspiracy to murder Zoran Djindjic, the former Serbian prime minister.
Serb national Zeljko Milovanović had already been convicted in absentia by a Croatian court for taking part in the 2008 murder of Croatian journalist Ivo Pukanić when he was arrested by Serbian police in 2009.
Currently standing trial in Belgrade charged with being a member of a group who assassinated Pukanić, Zagreb is assisting with the prosecution, a sign of improving relations between the two states.
“Milovanović… held three citizenships in the moment of his arrest; Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian. This is why he was beyond the reach of the justice for such a long time,” explains Oparica at Serbia’s Interpol office.
This kind of regional cooperation is vital if Balkan states want to properly prosecute criminals, notes Blerim Bexheti, the newly-appointed Macedonian justice minister.
“With these [extradition] agreements, we reduce the opportunities for criminals to hide behind dual citizenship or national legislation which helps them stay far from justice,” he says.
New Treaties Still Limit Extraditions
However, these agreements are very much just the first step toward creating a workable and enforceable extradition process. They only cover crimes such as money laundering, organised crime and corruption.
Even after all these bilateral extradition deals are signed, murderers, rapists and petty criminals will still be able to hide behind their multiple nationalities.
Dragan Paravinja was convicted of attempted rapes in Serbia in 2002 and of rape in Bosnia in July 2011; he was sentenced to four-and-a-half years and two years and 10 months respectively. He escaped standing trial for any crimes thanks to his Croatian passport.
He was arrested in Slovenia in 2007 and the authorities sent him to Croatia, after refusing an extradition request from Serbia on the grounds of human rights concerns. Paravinja went on to live freely in Croatia, complete with a new job and home, until he was named as the key suspect in the disappearance of 17-year-old Antonia Bilić from Drniš, in south-western Croatia.
The Bosnia police arrested him in June this year. The Bosnian authorities decided to temporarily extradite him to Croatia in July to shed light on the circumstances of Bilic’s disappearance. After the investigation is concluded, Croatia must hand over Paravinja back to the Bosnia and Herzegovina authorities, by the time the Bosnia court verdict comes into force.
Under the new, bilateral extradition treaties, Paravinja still could not have been extradited. Only a Balkans-wide treaty covering all criminal acts would properly deal with the issue of law-breakers hiding in regional states.
“The EU solved this problem with the European Arrest Warrant. Only we [Balkan states] are yet to implement it so we are the last haven for criminals,” says Vojkan Simić, assistant minister in the Serbian Ministry of Justice.
“We will have it in no time,” he believes, expecting this new mechanism to open not only the door for extraditions, but to also speed up the process to only 45 days, on a par with the EU average.
EU Arrest Warrant
For Erik Verbert, legal adviser to the Belgian federal justice service, the EAW has been a huge success, dramatically cutting the time taken to extradite nations and increasing the number of extraditions since it was introduced in 2004.
“You only have to fill out an application, there is less bureaucracy and shorter procedures. Previously we needed up to six months for extraditions and in one case it took Great Britain 11 years. Currently, extraditions take approximately 14 days and only a few days in Luxembourg,” says Verbert.
The EAW has removed what was the main obstacle among EU member states; the extradition of nationals. Almost no European country, except the UK, would extradite its citizens to stand trial in another country.
But not everyone agrees it is a good thing; some lawyers regard the EAW as a clumsy, over-used tool that can be exploited by states. Others point out that the EAW can only work if all justice systems are believed to be equally scrupulous and fair in the application of the law.
Roger Smith, director of the London-based Justice organisation, says if Balkan states want to join the EU, and by default sign up to the EAW, they must prove the judicial systems in place can deliver fair verdicts.
“For the European Arrest Warrant it is not important what kind of passport you hold, because citizenship is a relatively minor issue in the EU. It is more important to believe in the integrity of the judicial systems in all countries,” he says.
The EAW has drawn much fire from many legal organisations, including London-based Fair Trials International, because its very simplicity allows states to request extraditions for trivial cases, such as stealing a chicken from neighbours or forging a 100 euro note.
There have also been cases where individuals have been arrested for the same crime in more than one EU country.
Scott Crosby, lawyer with EU law specialists Kemmler Rapp Böhlke and Crosby in Belgium, goes one step further.
“The rationale was that there were no significant differences in the quality of justice from one state to another, but basically this is not the case. One cannot say that the judiciary in one country is particularly bad, because in many ways it is bad in all of them,” he warns.
Oparica at the Serbian Interpol office is not impressed with the work of the Macedonian administration and police.
“In Macedonia, once the government changes, the entire administration is replaced from top to bottom. One is promoted to head of the department, the highest position, and the next day becomes a common policeman. Half of them work, while the other half wait to seize the opportunity,” he says.
This criticism was repeated in the European Commission’s progress report for Macedonia this year.
Confiscation of Assets
Unable to extradite suspected and convicted criminals, Balkan countries have begun to confiscate assets from major criminals, in a bid to deter would-be criminals and recoup funds stolen from the state.
“In order to cope with the corruption, one should strike deep… and that is the assets. We want to show that all assets obtained illegally will be taken away and that the crime really did not pay,” states Ambassador Djurin.
Belgrade has so far seized 300 million euros worth of assets from criminals and is investing the money into measures to counter organised crime, says Simić at Serbia’s justice ministry.
Macedonia has so far confiscated more than 30 million euros from convicted criminals following five major and organised crime and corruption trials.
Mihajlo Manevski, the former justice minister who signed the first extradition treaties on behalf of Macedonia, is optimistic that Daravelski will be handed over to the Macedonian authorities soon.
Yet even if Belgrade and Skopje do finally sign an extradition treaty that would mean Daravelski could be returned to Macedonia, he could still evade justice by slipping into Bosnia or Bulgaria.
Whether the authorities will implement an extradition treaty before Daravelski opts for another change of address remains to be seen.
Slobodanka Jovanovska is a Skopje-based journalist. This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, an initiative of the Robert Bosch Stiftung and ERSTE Foundation, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.