On Sunday 10 August 2014 the Croatian newspaper and media portal Vecernji List published a lengthy interview with Judge Ivan Turudic, president of Zagreb County Court, in which Turudic, in response to the interview questions, replied with strong criticisms against the leaders of the government, the country’s presidency, the leader of a Serb party in Croatia…
Among other things Turudic said in his interview that Independent Democratic Serb Party (SDSS) vice-president Milorad Pupovac was ethnically biased and called upon him to explain what he knows about the fate of medical doctor Ivan Sreter, who was taken by Serbs in Pakrac in 1991; that Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic, whom he called a Bolshevik and monarch, “is floating on wastelands of his own ignorance and arrogance” and that no one attacks the judiciary more than the Prime Minister. As for President Ivo Josipovic, Turudic said he should reconsider his decision to keep Sasa Perkovic as his advisor on national security (Sasa Perkovic is the son of Josip Perkovic currently being tried in Germany in relation to murder committed in 1980’s under the former Yugoslavia communist crimes category/directives and it was Croatian leadership Turudic speaks of that strongly fought against the extradition of Josip Perkovic to Germany some months back). Turudic admitted to being in good relations with Tomislav Karamarko, the president of the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) and said that HDZ was a party that played a crucial role in the creation of the Croatian state. Furthermore, it could be concluded from the interview that Turudic believes that UDBA (Secret Police of communist Yugoslavia) is still “strongly powerful” in Croatia.
Subsequently, in an interview with Novi List daily, President Josipovic said that it was incompatible with good democratic principles and separation of powers for judges to be politically active and that a judge with political ambitions should leave the judiciary and enter the political arena.
“Had he been consistent in his statements, had he protected the principle of separation of powers, I would trust him today,” Turudic said, adding that Josipovic could have reacted when the judiciary was exposed “to horrible attacks from the executive authority.”
“If he is objecting to my saying something about (the military operation) Storm, I, unlike him, am a defender and have the right to comment because the day of Croatian veterans is my day and no one can take that right away from me,” Turudic said, adding that he was embittered by Croatian Victory and Homeland Thanksgiving Day having turned into “a holiday of three presidents, rather than of war veterans.”
Leaving aside the utterly improper and deplorable circumstances where a government or politicians (as in Croatia) evidently go on the attack of the judiciary and thereby erode the public’s trust in the judiciary, one thing that is important here is that Turudic has spoken out on issues that are strongly present with similar sentiments among the Croatian public on the daily basis – in media, in citizens action groups, in cafes, in homes… Turudic seems to me in this case no different in his opinions to many other citizens of Croatia who are concerned with the way the country is governed and when it comes to a case where a court judge speaks out on issues important to the nation then it’s to be expected that we will not find a consensus anywhere in the world about whether judges should speak out about matters pressing the nation they themselves are a part of. The crucial thing here would seem to be that if a court judge speaks out he/she does so without compromising the impartiality of the role he/she plays as a court judge. Judges are usually accorded a measure of respect, and weight is given to what they have to say in cases they pass judgment on, upon the faith of an understanding by the community that to be judicial is to be impartial. Judges, as citizens, have a right of free speech, and there may be circumstances in which they have a duty to speak out against what they regard as injustice, regardless of whether that injustice involves the whole nation or an individual citizen. If Turudic has said the things he did in the said newspaper interview from a court bench, during a hearing of a case, then he would be seen as deploying judicial authority in support of a political cause and in that case there would be risks of undermining the foundation upon which such authority rests. He did not say those things in a court of law – he said them dressed in his “civilian” clothes, seemingly on annual leave, during an interview for a newspaper. Had Turudic stood on a “soapbox” in a public park and gave an unsolicited speech in which he said similar things then I might have something else to say about it, and that something else would be critical of such behaviour.
On 4 July 1988, the Basic Principles on Independence of the Judiciary were adopted by the 7th United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders and include:
“Freedom of Expression and Association
8. In accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, members of the judiciary are like other citizens, entitled to freedom of expression, belief, association and assembly, provided, however, that in exercising such rights, judges shall always conduct themselves in such a manner as to preserve the dignity of their office and the impartiality and independence of the judiciary”.
The Croatian law regarding the judiciary, the courts, contains these very elements but it also stipulates that judges cannot be members of political parties “nor engage in political activities”. Such codes of conduct of judges are similar in all democracies. From reading up on various reactions in Croatia to the said Judge Turudic interview (those for and those against) one gets the feeling that, for whatever reason (but obviously political point scoring in some cases) many of those reacting to it seem to confuse, perhaps intentionally, the difference between “political activity” and “opinion about political activity of politicians”, which was what Turudic seems to have been doing. As a private citizen with rights to opinions, Turudic, as anyone else, should enjoy the right of expressing his personal opinions without those being attributed to his role as an officer of the judiciary.
It’s a shame that Croatia has a president who classifies a citizen’s opinion about politician’s activities as political activity in itself!
And indeed, it’s difficult to see that Turudic has by way of his answers to a journalist’s questions placed at risk the dignity of his office as a judge and Croatian judiciary just as, for example, the UK’s top judge Lord David Neuberger, the Supreme Court President, did not when in March of 2013 he attacked UK Government on legal aid cuts, secret courts and human rights threats…
Judging by what president Ivo Josipovic has said on the matter of Turudic’s interview it’s difficult not to conclude that it is the president himself who has placed the label of “political activity” upon an expression of opinion about political activity of those in power and government close to his own political leanings (left). This constitutes an unfair attack and it has all the hallmarks of communist ways whereby attacking the critics one diverts the attention from the real issues, from real concerns. The Croatian public is yet to hear whether the Supreme Court President, Branko Hrvatin (currently on annual leave), will find it necessary to comment on Turudic’s interview and if sanctions against Turudic as an officer of the judiciary will follow. This, I see, will be a telling test as to how far Croatian democracy has moved forward in separating professional and private roles of its citizens in order to allow democracy to flourish. Ina Vukic, Prof. (Zgb); B.A., M.A.Ps. (Syd)