Justice for all is a must for North Macedonia

By Jan Figel

Last week’s Western Balkans EU Summit in Slovenia was the opportunity for the European Union to reaffirm its commitment to the enlargement process. Word and thus aim of “EU enlargement” is back after several years of reluctance.

North Macedonia is among nations wishing to join the EU. In September, following a visit to Skopje, President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen expressed that “North Macedonia has made outstanding progress on EU-related reforms and taken courageous decisions”. She indicated it is not a question of if, but when, accession talks should start.

As a former European Commissioner, I support plans to bring more qualified nations into the union. However, it’s also apparent that some Western Balkan countries are currently falling short in some key areas before they start accession negotiations.

Ahead of the Western Balkans summit, it was confirmed that EU support for candidate states is “linked to tangible progress on the rule of law… and adherence to European values, rules and standards”.

Evaluated against this criteria, the North Macedonian government, legislators and judiciary have work to do.

In July, a Council of Europe report (CPT) criticised the treatment and conditions of detention of prisoners in two North Macedonian prisons, in addition to persons held by the police in Skopje.

The report highlighted cramped, unhygienic and decrepit conditions and stated that the situation was made worse by the lack of activities provided to remand prisoners, who could be locked up in their cells at Skopje Prison for 23 hours a day.

One of this prison’s most notable inhabitants is North Macedonian businessman Jordan Kamchev, who has been detained without trial since 14 March.

His case highlights additional failures by the North Macedonian state authorities to abide by important European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) rulings. (Incidentally, Mr Kamchev’s legal team has made submissions to the ECHR concerning his case.)

Above all, in their treatment of Mr Kamchev, North Macedonia is reneging on its promise to follow the terms of the ECHR’s judgement in the 2010 Vasilkoski case, which dealt with cases of unlawful and unjustified detention.

As a result, the public prosecutors have failed to provide concrete reasons for repetitive prolonging Mr Kamchev’s pre-trial detention. They have also failed to consider alternatives to long-term detention such as bailout or house arrest, in direct contravention of the Vasilkoski judgement.

Furthermore, Mr Kamchev’s legal team maintain that the public prosecutors have not provided all relevant documentation concerning their requests for extending the defendant’s ongoing detention, while the Appeal Court has failed to hold any public hearings concerning this case. Moreover, indictment based only on a note from the Agency for National Security (secret service) with a mix of untrue information is unlawful ground for deprivation of liberty and smells by abuse of power.

The Council of Europe’s condemnation of conditions within Skopje Prison became apparent following Mr Kamchev’s initial detention, when he was imprisoned in a 4m2 cell with no running water or sanitation facilities. The Ombudsman of the Republic of North Macedonia, which has a mandate to protect citizens’ rights, criticised Mr Kamchev’s “inhuman and degrading treatment”. The cell was closed after this worrying notice.

In the summer, Mr Kamchev’s health condition 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. Despite not being charged with any offence, he has now been imprisoned for almost seven months.

I should note that Mr Kamchev’s family has asked for my assistance in this matter, and I am willing to meet all relevant parties to seek a solution that satisfies the prosecutors’ requirements while respecting Mr Kamchev’s legal and human rights. I have already visited Mr Kamchev in prison, and I  met several relevant officials in Skopje recently.

The concept of rule of law, human rights protection and justice for all must apply to every citizen living in the European Union, in addition to people residing in applicant countries.

States such as North Macedonia must be held accountable for the commitments they have made to administer penal and judicial reforms, in line with European legal rulings and regulations.

They can not be allowed to pick and choose which legislative elements are implemented or ignored as has happened in the case involving Mr Kamchev. The law must apply equally to everyone, all of the time.

I sincerely hope that the European Union will move forward with its plans to admit Western Balkan countries into our group of nations without further delay. And, in order to facilitate this process, I call on nations such as North Macedonia to honour their commitments in respecting the rule of law and human dignity for all.

Ján Figeľ was European Commissioner for the Enterprise and Information Society (2004) and Education, Training and Culture (2004 – 2007). He also served as European Commission special envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion outside the EU (2016 – 2019). Currently he is a member of the International Council of Experts at the IRFBA Alliance established in February 2020.