November 6, 2014 / 5:20 PM / 5 years ago

Serbian inmates say lawyers' strike keeping them in jail

BELGRADE (Reuters) - Dozens of prison inmates in Serbia appealed to the country’s top human rights official on Thursday, saying they faced spending more time behind bars than necessary due to an almost two-month-old strike by lawyers.

Lawyers in the Balkan country have been on strike since Sept. 10, boycotting most court proceedings in a dispute with the government over taxes and the role of notaries.

A spokeswoman for Belgrade’s High Court said 320 trials involving defendants in court detention had been postponed due to the strike. A senior judge was quoted as saying the strike had forced the postponement of more than 100,000 court hearings in total.

“The damage is immeasurable and the consequences far-reaching,” Dragomir Milojevic, president of the Supreme Court and Serbia’s High Judicial Council, told the daily Politika.

A group of 64 inmates in Belgrade wrote to human rights ombudsman Sasa Jankovic asking for his intervention, saying some of them could have been released pending trial, but that their court hearings had been postponed.

“We are urging you to come to our aid so our trials would not be postponed and we could have our problems solved as soon as possible,” they wrote, according to the state news agency Tanjug.

An official at the Serbian Justice Ministry confirmed the inmates had sent a letter but declined to elaborate. Jankovic was not immediately reachable for comment. His office did not respond to emailed questions from Reuters.

The Bar Association of Serbia, which is leading the strike, dismissed the inmates’ complaints, saying courts could decide on detention with or without defense lawyers.

However, Serbia’s courts are widely seen as slow, inefficient and susceptible to corruption and political influence. The strike has sharply slowed the rate of appeals against detention.

Serbia has committed to reform its already overloaded judicial system as part of efforts to meet standards set by the European Union, which it hopes to join.

The Bar Association said on Thursday it was considering an offer by the finance ministry to cut lawyers’ tax liabilities.

Editing by Matt Robinson and Gareth Jones

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