Serbia sets referendum on depoliticising judicial appointments

BELGRADE, Nov 30 (Reuters) - Serbian lawmakers on Tuesday approved a Jan. 16 referendum on amendments to the constitution that would depoliticise the appointment of prosecutors and judges to help qualify Serbia for eventual accession to the European Union.

The amendments would transfer the power to elect senior members of the judiciary from parliament to a High Judicial Council and High Prosecutors Council.

The referendum was backed by 193 deputies from President Aleksandar Vucic’s coalition in the 250-seat parliament and will be held on Jan. 16, Ivica Dacic, parliament speaker and leader of the co-ruling Socialists, told reporters.

“It is in (the Serbian people’s) best interest to confirm this decision... (which) will be a big step forward on Serbia’s path to the EU,” Dacic said.

The Western Balkan country is a candidate for EU membership but to achieve that goal it must strengthen the independence of the judiciary and improve the rule of law.

Last week, the Council of Europe, the EU’s rights watchdog, said its constitutional advisory body concluded that most of the proposed amendments were made in line with its recommendations.

The plebiscite will be held under a new referendum law which abolished a minimum 50% turnout threshold.

That law was condemned by environmental groups who said it may be used by the government to give free rein to foreign mining companies in the country. (Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic Editing by Mark Heinrich)