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Interview: Ljubisa Lazarevic: The Criminal Code

22 January 1996 The struggle against crime will be "fierce", "relentless", "rigorous" even "cruel", the state-controlleed media in Serbia said this January as they have done for several Januarys now.

Ljubisa Lazarevic, professor of criminal law at Belgrade university and the editor of recently published comments on the criminal code in Serbia and Yugoslavia which want numerous changes, spoke to VREME about the real possibilities and obstacles to fighting crime.

Lazarevic feels that if a decision was taken now to introduce a truly new law, the zone of punishment should be reduced since we have a "hypertrophied system of criminal acts" including insults and light bodily harm while on the other hand new incriminations should be introduced, especially in business crime. The criminal legislation did not keep in step with changes in that field and did not cover the fact that new property owners have appeared.

VREME: Do you think more severe punishment is needed?

Professor Lazarevic: "Under the proscribed punishment we are among strict legislations. However, judging by sentences passed we have a lenient punishment policy. If the proscribed punishment for a crime is one to 10 years the sentence will most often be nearer the lower limit. Have the punishments been proscribed realistically? No. They are high. And when there are calls for greater punishment that probably means sentences passed."

Earlier you said the law on public order and law on weapons are not in accord with the criminal code. Do those problems still exist?

Criminal law is drawn up by experts and criminal regulations are introduced into non-criminal laws by people who know nothing about criminal legislation. The consequence is that under the law on public order, an attack on a policeman draws a sentence of 15 years in prison, the same as a sentence for murder. That is pure legal nonsense.

Does the necessary political mood exist to adopt a criminal code of the type you mentioned?

Greater reforms of criminal law, especially in terms of democratization and humanization, presuppose a certain social and economic and political situation. At the moment that does not exist in this country. First, we have an extremely high crime growth rate overall, especially heavy crime (murders, robberies, rapes, racketeering). Secondly, there is an extremely high number of unsolved criminal acts or unknown perpetrators. And third, the social climate is unfavorable since society is irritated by the situation and the inefficiency of the fight against crime. In that situation, pleading for democratization and humanization of the criminal laws can seem absurd. However, I think that we should accept all this as something temporary and try to make laws for the future.

How important to suppressing crime is the adoption of the new laws?

The essence of the struggle against crime is not the state of the criminal code. I personally believe that as it is today it is a satisfactory basis. The inefficiency problems are on the other side. I mean social problems, the overall social and economic situation caused by the war on our borders, the sanctions, great migration, unemployment, the fact that even children have firearms.

The state of bodies that are on the front line of the fight against crime, the police and judiciary, is of extreme importance. The question is do we have the personnel and equipment in the police to combat crime.

You ask that question despite the fact that the police number over 100,000 and the fact that vast amounts of money have been spent in equipping it?

Personnel and equipment include professionally trained people who have reached the needed level of education, who have modern equipment to fight crime. That does not mean a lot of people but people who are capable of combating crime. The creation of a police state is something else.

To what extent are the courts independent?

In the legislative sense the independence of the judiciary has been secured. The constitution of Serbia and law on courts has abolished the re-election of judges, so they aren't subject to verification by the authorities every four years. The courts have been normatively protected from politics. What happens in practice, I cannot say.

Do you believe the suspension of the sanctions removed the main cause of crime?

I wouldn't say that the sanctions were the only cause but they did affect the rise of crime since other, more direct, causes stemmed from them. That primarily means economic crimes since the fact that you can't legally buy necessary goods turns you towards illegal sources. Also, poverty causes a rise of property crime; the inability of the state to oppose that fiercely motivates people to get into crime. Overall, I would not expect the lifting of the sanctions to reflect strongly on the drop in crime. I think we will see serious crime for some time to come.

Do you approve of the demands for "ruthless" even "cruel" combat against criminals?

There is no ruthless or not ruthless fight against crime, it has to be planned and organized. There are limits to the fight against crime and there is no use following the logic that the end justifies the means. That fight has to be legal, based on the law, and legitimate which means in the measure necessary.
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