NEWS

Scales of justice tilt in favor of rich and powerful

The judicial official sitting opposite us in one of the many small rooms at the court building on Alexandras Avenue seems composed. But when he starts recounting what goes on in the justice system, it is obvious that he is feeling the pressure caused by interference and the manner in which the judicial system operates. «The courts should not close at 4 p.m., leaving people with cases dragging on from one adjournment to another, and taking 4-5 years to get justice. Honest prosecutors should not be abused by politicians and find their cases shelved, even when injustices are apparent and have been proven during the preliminary hearing. The impunity of the powerful cannot continue while the full rigor of justice falls only on the poor and unknown.» Malfunction Is justice administered properly in Greece? The question stems from the everyday experience of seeing the social status of those who stand trial, the prevailing method of administering justice, the time taken to judge cases, the latest statements by Justice Minister Michalis Stathopoulos on many and various cases of interference, the suppression of cases, and the desperation of prosecutors over preliminary inquiries which get shelved. «The problem of the administration of justice is very severe, much more so than it seems,» Giorgos Vellis, the former Supreme Court vice president told Kathimerini, while another leading lawyer observed that the problem stemmed from the fact that the judiciary has never been independent. According to Left Coalition leader Nikos Konstantopoulos, who has spent half his life in courtrooms, «there is no division of powers, but a confusion of powers, since political power has always tried to subjugate the judiciary.» A courageous and unyielding senior judge pointed out that the Cabinet’s retention of the right to select senior judges permitted political control of justice and retained the interventional powers of the Higher Judicial Council. He also observed that the self-administration introduced into echelons of the judiciary was not working. On the contrary, he believes it risks falling prey to party politics and leading to factional or party choices, as with university boards of governors. This loss of independence, interference by politicians and ministers, forces within the judiciary, and vested interests that have introduced elements of bribery and corruption have led to serious distortions and the administration of justice along class lines. «Someone who has support and has social standing is in a better position than a poor person,» admitted a senior judge, who also noted that «it is very hard for an ordinary person to get justice, and if they do, it usually takes ages – around five years on average – they spend lots of money, and by the time they get justice they may no longer need it.» This delay in the administration of justice, the same judge believes, already represents a deficit of justice, which is worsened by the effects of interference and influence. Taken in combination, it means that not all people are treated according to the same criteria. Anyone without fame or fortune is more likely to be remanded in custody. Chicanery is more common, public distrust of the justice system is growing and the impartiality and honesty of judicial rulings come into question. If bribery is involved, then matters take a dangerous turn, and the high standards of some judges and prosecutors cannot outweigh the misdeeds of the rest. «These worthy people are the salt of the earth,» Vellis wrote recently in the legal periodical Dikigoriki Epikairotita, adding that «there is another element,» implying those who had succumbed to the lure of bribery. «I don’t know the extent of it, I’m afraid it’s not small. But it is enough to debase the image of justice in the minds of a large part of society and our reputation has sunk to its lowest point.» An acute problem Justice is clearly in dire straits. Those who study it at close quarters observe that the problem has become more acute lately. It is more obviously dysfunctional, internal corruption has reached new heights, and bribery has acquired alarming dimensions, being utilized to the full by lawyers who have located the sources of judicial corruption. The fact that the judicial elections are approaching has made the political leadership more interventionist as it prepares the changes in the higher levels of the judiciary for next June. In such an environment, the independence of the judiciary recedes even more, making the problem so acute that some are rebelling. Giorgos Zorbas, an appeals court prosecutor recently elevated to the vice presidency of the Supreme Court, has commented in private conversations that the problem with the judiciary arises from the timidity of the majority and the tardiness with which justice is administered. Presumably he is referring to the capitulation of the majority to extensive interference, much of it from people who wield political power. At this stage, mention should be made of the role of the general secretary of the Justice Ministry, Prodromos Asimiadis, who is a classic interventionist. Younger prosecutors view the situation in more dramatic terms. Some have resigned because they have no hope of promotion, and they avoid cases which might affect their progress. Others have formed party attachments on which they base their future. But recently a dynamic group of young prosecutors has emerged. They do not share a uniform outlook, but they cannot bear to see «preliminary investigations being turned into a graveyard of cases,» very few of which reach court. This group has formed a rudimentary reform movement, but it has been subjected to heavy pressure and been the target of numerous accusations. Some of them have already come under pressure from their superiors. Others have been overloaded with court appearances, so that they do not have time for investigative work. Others have been transferred, or have lost their offices, or cannot even find a cupboard to lock away the results of their research. They persist, however, and are unwilling to give in. Many speak openly of a «junta» of judges while others claim they support New Democracy. The fact is that these are young judges, with an almost Robespierre-like attitude, who cannot bear to see their superiors brief the Justice Ministry’s general secretary on a daily basis, and they rebel against the obstacles placed in the way of their work. «Nobody can be satisfied with the situation that has developed in the structure and functions of the justice system,» says Konstantopoulos, adding that «justice is suffering from the attempts of the rulers of the day to control it, to the point that they praise it when it suits them and denounce when it bothers them. «There is no division of powers; on the contrary there is a confusion of powers, and that is the problem. Unfortunately, there are mechanisms of control, interference and influence, and also internal causes of corruption and decay in the justice system.» Supreme Court president Stefanos Mathias, speaking about interference in the course of justice to a meeting of the Citizens’ Movement on October 10, said: «All kinds of regulations and interference are traditionally used to watch over justice and prevent it from growing up and maturing. All the other causes of delays in justice – the lack of infrastructure, staff, training and diligence – exist, but they are secondary. «If the limits of responsibility are not clarified, and the power that naturally belongs to the judiciary so that it carries out its task with authority is not respected, then the work of justice will suffer in terms of quality and quantity, with negative consequences for legality, human rights and social coexistence and the country’s economy.» It is more than apparent that justice is ailing in Greece. One of the pillars of a democratic regime has been impaired and risks falling into disrepute. Serious debate is needed, before it is too late.