Justice for all must apply in North Macedonia before membership plans can progress
The Western Balkans summit held this week in Slovenia was a timely opportunity for the European Union to reaffirm its commitment to the enlargement process, writes Ján Figeľ.
North Macedonia appears at the forefront of the nations wishing to join the EU. In September, following a visit to Skopje, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted “North Macedonia has made remarkable progress on EU-related reforms and taken courageous decisions” and she said it was not a question of if, but when, the accession talks should start.
As a former European Commissioner, I support projects aimed at integrating more nations into the Union. However, it is also evident that some countries in the Western Balkans are currently lagging behind in key areas before they can be welcomed with open arms.
Ahead of the Western Balkans summit, it was confirmed that EU support to candidate states is “linked to tangible progress in the rule of law … and respect for European values, rules and standards”.
Assessed against these criteria, North Macedonia’s government, lawmakers and justice system have their work cut out for them.
In July, a Council of Europe report criticized the treatment and conditions of detention of prisoners in two prisons in North Macedonia, in addition to those held by police in Skopje.
The report underlined the cramped, unsanitary and decrepit conditions and indicated that the situation was aggravated by the lack of activities planned for the defendants, who could be locked in their cells at Skopje prison 23 hours a day.
One of the most notable inhabitants of this prison is North Macedonian businessman Jordan Kamchev, held without trial since March 14.
His case highlights further failures by the North Macedonian authorities to comply with important decisions of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). (In addition, Mr. Kamchev’s legal team has submitted observations to the ECHR regarding his case.)
Above all, in the treatment it reserves for Mr. Kamchev, North Macedonia goes back on its promise to respect the terms of the judgment of the ECHR in the Vasilkoski case of 2010, which dealt with cases of illegal and unjustified detention .
As a result, prosecutors failed to provide concrete reasons for repeatedly extending Mr. Kamchev’s pre-trial detention. They also did not consider alternatives to long-term detention, such as bail or house arrest, in direct violation of the Vasilkoski judgment.
In addition, Mr. Kamchev’s legal team contends that prosecutors failed to provide all relevant documents regarding their requests for an extension of the accused’s pending detention, while the appeals court did not hold no public hearing regarding this matter. Moreover, an indictment based solely on a note from the National Security Agency (North Macedonian Secret Service) with a mixture of false information is an illegal motive and smacks of political interest.
The Council of Europe’s condemnation of the conditions of detention in Skopje prison became apparent after Mr Kamchev’s initial detention, when he was held in a 4-meter prison2 cell without running water or sanitary facilities. The Ombudsman of the Republic of North Macedonia, whose mandate is to protect the rights of citizens, criticized the “inhuman and degrading treatment” of Mr. Kamchev.
Over the summer, Mr. Kamchev’s state of health deteriorated and he was transferred to hospital. He was returned to Skopje Prison a few days later, but he still suffers from serious long-standing cardiovascular health issues. A hearing is due to take place in Skopje on October 8 to consider Mr Kamchev’s case. Although he has not been charged with any offense, he has now been jailed for almost seven months.
I must note that Mr. Kamchev’s family have requested my assistance in this case, and I am willing to meet with all parties concerned to find a solution that meets the demands of prosecutors while respecting Mr. Kamchev’s legal and human rights. . I have already visited Mr Kamchev in prison and will meet several government and judicial officials, as well as the ombudsman, in Skopje over the next few weeks.
The concepts of the rule of law, the protection of human rights and justice for all must apply to all citizens living in the European Union, in addition to those residing in the candidate countries.
States like North Macedonia must be held accountable for their commitments to administer penal and judicial reforms, in accordance with European legal rulings and regulations.
They cannot be allowed to choose which pieces of legislation are implemented or ignored, as happened in the case involving Mr Kamchev. The law should apply equally to everyone at all times.
I sincerely hope that the European Union will move forward with its plan to admit the countries of the Western Balkans into our group of nations without further delay. And, in order to facilitate this process, I call on nations such as North Macedonia to honor their commitments to respect the rule of law and human dignity for all.
Ján Figeľ was European Commissioner for Business and Information Society (2004) and Education, Training and Culture (2004 – 2007). He was also a special envoy of the European Commission for the promotion of religious freedom outside the EU (2016 – 2019). He is currently a member of the International Council of Experts of the IRFBA Alliance created in February 2020.