Closing Arguments Presented at Dragan Čović’s Trial

Today at the Cantonal Court in Sarajevo were presented closing arguments at the trial of Dragan Čović, charged with abuse of office while he was the FBiH Finance Minister in 2000.

Prosecutor Aziz Jahjaefendić first read the amended indictment saying that it’s only a matter of small changes and formalities, but the defense did not fail to notice that it was actually a reduced indictment. Čović is no more charged with signing and passing, but just with passing an incriminating document that allegedly exempted the firms owned by the Lijanovićs family from paying 1.8 million KM in customs duties on the import of mechanically separated chicken.

Nives Kanevčev, the canton’s chief prosecutor, said she had been passed ‘a hot potato’ and that ‘key evidence’ was missing. Lawyers Zdravko Rajić and Davor Martinović have defended Čović since 2005 when the trial began before the Court of BiH.

Čović was indicted for organized crime, abuse of office, bribery and tax evasion in the amount of 38.7 million along with co-defendants Jozo, Jerko, Mladen and Slavo Ivanković Lijanović, the owners of Meat Industry Lijanović from Široki Brijeg; then president of the BiH Constitutional Court Mato Tadić and lawyer Zdravko Lučić for whom prosecutors allege that he was a go-between in the bribery transaction.

It was established during the trial that in 2000, two Lijanovići firms asked then director of the FBiH Custom’s Administration Filip Andrić—which was under Čović’s finance ministry-to exempt them from paying taxes on the imported mechanically separated chicken. Andrić granted duty-free import citing two documents stamped with Čović’s signature. Thus, the Lijanovićs’ firms avoided paying 38.7 million KM in custom duties.

Čović left the ministry in 2001. The new custom’s director Slavko Sikirić demanded that the Lijanovićs pay import duties retroactively so he requested an administrative review. The Supreme Court of FBiH ordered the Lijanovićs to pay the duties, but they were saved by the Constitutional Court of BiH which tossed out the verdicts. This led to a trial of the president of the Constitutional Court Tadić, but he was acquitted just like the Lijanovići brothers and attorney Lučić.

Čović was sentenced before appeal based on just one out of two incriminating documents that helped the Lijanovićis avoid paying 1.8 million KM. The Court of BiH has not even considered the other document, nearly of the same content, that led to the exemption of additional 36.9 million KM of duties because the original document could not be found in the FBiH Ministry of Finances – just a zerox copy.

In an appeal trial in 2008, the Court of BiH declared that it lacked jurisdiction and the case was referred to the Prosecutor’s Office of Sarajevo Canton. Memos reveal that documents have been transported among the three judiciary bodies at least nine times between March 2009 and February 2011. Cantonal prosecutors discovered last June that 40 documents were gone, according to the Center for Investigative Reporting in Sarajevo (CIN).

Evidence Missing from Čovic and Lijanovićies file
Because original documents are missing from the case file of Čović and the Lijanovićies, legal proceedings could be endangered, according to the Prosecutor’s Office of Sarajevo Canton.

Čović’s defense was shooting down the indictment’s arguments for two hours and has used the lack of procedures during the transport to challenge the legality of the trial. Defense pointed out that there was no protection of evidence, that it was possible to tamper with it, while some of it has been lost or hidden. The defense claimed that this infringed Čović’s constitutional right to a fair court trial.

The defense tactic consisted in discrediting the key witness Filip Andrić claiming that the law would not have been broken even if Čović had passed the incriminating act, because it was not obligatory.

Defense reiterated that on the day when the document was issued, Čović was on a wedding in Zagreb, while the charges that he ignored the state agency’s warning about the illegality of this order were unfounded.

The indictment does not cite provisions of the law that would hold Čović accountable for voiding the incriminating document. Andrić could’ve easily avoided such a document, while his successor Sikirić simply voided it which contradicted a prosecutor’s claim that this was an obligatory document.

The indictment was also not legal because the prosecutors neglected evidence that in favor of the defendant, nor was he interviewed by the prosecutors before they had filled the indictment which contravened the Law on Criminal Proceedings, said Rajić. The lawyers said that the key witness Andrić was originally a suspect, and only got the protected status after he had incriminated Čović.

The defense presented a prosecutor’s memo that described how boxes of evidence were transported between the state and cantonal prosecutor’s offices without a detailed accompanying list. Also, the defense presented a letter addressed to them by the Court of BiH saying that the protocols of the Customs Administration could not be found even though they have been used as evidence of defense during the first trial. The defense also quoted a precedent set up by the Constitutional Court of BiH which said that lack of protection evidence could constitute grounds to toss out charges because a fair trial and protection of evidence have not been established.

The defense also said that the prosecutors failed to check if machine processed chicked was at all on the list of articles on which import duties are tobe paid and that no damage of the budget has been established, because otherwise the damage would have been recovered. Justice Ružić announced that the Panel will announce the verdict already on Monday, May 7, 2012.

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