Businessman’s detention puts spotlight on conditions in North Macedonia’s prisons

Businessman’s detention puts spotlight on conditions in North Macedonia’s prisons
Video footage shows two suspects leaving businessman Orce Kamcev’s home carrying a bag of money. Kamcev, who is currently in detention, says he was a victim of extortion.
By Valentina Dimitrievska in Skopje October 28, 2021

A four-square-metre detention cell with mould and moisture, no running water and no proper sanitation facilities, which put in danger the health of detainees, is part of the picture of North Macedonia’s prisons described by Jan Figel, a former EU commissioner who recently visited Skopje prison.

Figel was visiting the prominent local entrepreneur, Jordan “Orce” Kamcev, a man who suffers from a genetically inherited condition that leaves him vulnerable to heart attacks yet who was kept in such conditions for the first months of his detention in the Sutka prison near Skopje earlier this year.

Kamcev was charged with money laundering in one of the high-level crime cases in which the former prime minister and ex-leader of the now opposition VMRO-DPMNE, Nikola Gruevski, was also involved. He was put in pre-trial detention in March 2021. On May 12, charges were brought against him and the other suspects in the case dubbed Plots on Vodno (Placevi na Vodno). He is the only one of the suspects currently in detention, and he suffered a serious deterioration in his health until he was transferred to another cell after the intervention of the country’s ombudsman.

Former European commissioner Figel visited Kamcev in Sutka prison on September 29 after receiving approval from the president of the Basic Criminal Court.

“I succeeded to meet the man who suffered injustice and degrading treatment,” Figel told bne IntelliNews, adding that Kamcev’s original cell has been closed following the ombudsman's inspection due to its “inhumane and unacceptable” conditions, and cannot be used for detention of suspects anymore.

“Kamcev suffers continuously from his serious heart disease without convenient treatment… He could suddenly collapse and die, like his father did with a similar diagnosis. Do the state authorities care? Or is this somebody's wishful aim?” said Figel, who visited Skopje after being asked by Kamcev’s family for assistance.

In a written statement to bne IntelliNews, Figel said that answers he received from state authorities in Skopje raised some serious doubts about the rule of law and human rights protection in North Macedonia in general, and in Kamcev's case in particular.

“Such ongoing detention and treatment is not compatible with the EU standards," Figel concluded.

A persistent problem 

While Kamcev’s case is a high profile one, poor conditions in prisons in North Macedonia, inadequate detention conditions and the poor quality of healthcare for detainees were among the issues raised in the European Commission’s latest country report released on October 19.

Reforms in the judicial system and the rule of law are among the priorities that North Macedonia should implement as part of the EU recommendations for further progress on the road to fully-fledged membership in the bloc.

Aside from the veto by neighbouring Bulgaria last year, which is the most serious obstacle now to the launch of membership talks, North Macedonia must continue its efforts to implement reforms to align with the EU acquis.

One of the most difficult areas to reform is the justice system, which has been burdened for years with inefficiency, corruption, poor prison conditions and other shortcomings. Among the problems are party-affiliated judges, cross-party accusations about a biased judiciary and unresolved cases. The system’s woes culminated with the breakup of the former Special Prosecutor Office (SPO), tasked to probe high-level crime, back in 2019 after top-level corruption was revealed in its own ranks.

The authorities are strongly committed to reforms, but there have always been flaws on the way and unfortunately these have been to the detriment of individuals, which could damage the country's international reputation at a crucial time when citizens are fervently awaiting the start of EU membership negotiations.

EC recommendations  

The EU's latest report welcomed efforts to tackle high-level criminal cases, but previous recommendations, such as the need to improve prison conditions, provide adequate health care for detainees and prisoners and fair treatment in pre-trial proceedings, were highlighted again.

In the latest report on North Macedonia, the European Commission noted that the country should further increase alternatives to detention and promptly address the recommendations of international monitoring bodies, especially with regard to the rights of persons in detention and prison.

“The main shortcomings of the prison system remain — the poor management and performance of staff, low staffing levels, poor quality of health-care provided to inmates, inter-prisoner violence, squalid material conditions and endemic corruption,” said the EC report.

The persistent issue of inadequate detention conditions in some prisons, police stations, social care and psychiatric facilities should be urgently addressed, it stated.

“While the opening of the Bitola prison and the Educational-Correctional Facility near Tetovo at the end of 2020 are positive steps to improve overall conditions of detention in the prison system, the inhumane detention conditions in the Idrizovo Penitentiary-Correctional Facility and in parts of other detention facilities remain. The rehabilitation of the most derelict buildings should be fast-tracked,’’ it added. 

The Commission said that some progress has been made, as the country continued to consolidate its track record on investigating, prosecuting and trying several corruption cases, including at high level, and strengthened its institutional framework, especially the State Commission for Prevention of Corruption and the Prosecutor for Organised Crime and Corruption.

The EC also praised the adoption of the 2021-2025 National Strategy for the Prevention of Corruption and Conflict of Interest by the parliament. North Macedonia’s justice ministry also announced that it launched the process of vetting the judges and prosecutors.

Seeking Kamcev’s release 

Kamcev’s lawyers are trying to get their client released from detention and sent to house arrest due to his health condition — they also say there is a lack of evidence in the case — but so far their attempts have failed.

North Macedonia is a signatory of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) of the Council of Europe and the UN’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantee a series of protective measures, both in terms of the restriction of liberty and of possible abuse of the detainee.

“Such are, for example, the detainee's right to humane conditions in detention, the prohibition of torture and other forms of inhuman treatment, the detainee's right to periodic revision of the reasons for detention,” Skopje-based attorney at law Svetozar Risteski told bne IntelliNews.

Risteski, who is also a legal consultant to the Council of Europe, said that in case of prolonged detention, it is important that every decision on detention is well reasoned, and that the reasoning should satisfy the requirement for applying justice and the standard of legal security and the rule of law.

“The grounds for extension of detention need to be based on law and to be relevant. But even when they are, if the institutions act slowly, there might be an unreasonable delay in detention, which represents a violation of Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights,” Risteski explained.

Risteski, who is a trainer and expert for the ECHR, added that detention, which is the strictest measure to ensure the presence of the suspects or defendants, should be limited to the shortest possible period.

According to some legal experts and Kamcev’s defence team, in Kamcev’s case, there are violations of provisions of Articles 3, 5 and 6 of the ECHR, which refer to the right to prohibition of inhuman behaviour, right to liberty and security and the right to a fair trial.

What the other side says

The Public Prosecutor Office had not responded to a request to comment to bne IntelliNews at the time of going to press, but the Criminal Court in Skopje, via its spokesperson Dejan Ristovski, provided more information about Kamcev's case.

“The criminal proceedings are in the phase of presenting evidences, for which trials are being held at least once a week due to the urgency of the procedure,” Ristovski said in a written statement to bne IntelliNews.

Regarding the conditions in the Skopje prison’s detention unit, he said that the court is competent only to ensure that prison conditions as well as rights and obligations of all detainees are met, and so far in the case of Kamcev they have been consistently fulfilled.

“All medical examinations requested for the same defendant have been approved,” Ristovski said.

The court’s spokesperson explained that there were several reasons for the court to accept prosecutors’ proposal to determine and extend the detention measure for Kamcev.

These include, he said, the type and nature of the crime he is charged with, the length of the possible prison sentence for this type of crime, the fact that the defendant is being prosecuted in another criminal case and the fear that he might flee to neighbouring Bulgaria based on information received by the security services.

He noted the Court of Appeal also rejected the lawyers’ appeals for Kamcev’s release.

The same court rejected Kamcev’s offer to post bail of over €1.7mn in cash and property. 

Dismantling the SPO

Kamcev’s case started with the disintegration of the former Special Prosecutor Office (SPO), after corruption in its ranks was revealed back in 2019. The scandal, which was exposed by Italian daily La Verita when it published video footage recorded by Kamcev, left a huge blemish on the justice system of the EU-aspiring country.

The SPO was set up in 2015 under the EU-mediated Przino deal, which ended the political crisis following the wiretapping scandal concerning top officials that broke earlier that year.

The SPO, which was headed by Katica Janeva (who has since been convicted), was later disbanded but the “earthquake” triggered by the scandal left many victims traumatised.

The authorities quickly reorganised the SPO’s operations by redistributing high-level criminal cases to the Public Prosecutor Office. The European Commission praised North Macedonia in this regard and for how it was dealing with these cases, which involve a bunch of former officials and people close to the now opposition VMRO-DPMNE party, which ruled the country for 10 years to 2017. 

The SPO scandal erupted in July 2019 when 1TV owner Bojan Jovanovski, aka Boki 13, and his associate Zoran Milevski-Kiceec were detained for extorting €1.5mn from Kamcev, who was accused in another SPO case dubbed Empire. 

Kamcev explained at the time that after he realised that he was the subject of a racket he decided to give Jovanovski €1mn and to record the process with home security cameras and cell phones. Jovanovski and Milevski allegedly received €1.5mn from Kamcev on two occasions.

Prosecutors said that the suspects promised Kamcev that he would avoid a prison sentence and his passport, which had been confiscated in the Empire case, would be returned if he paid them off. 

A series of footage was released from August 7, 2019, when La Verita published a video recording showing Jovanovski and Milevski leaving Kamcev’s home, presumably while he was under house arrest, carrying a bag of money. The audio recordings also showed the suspected involvement of Janeva in the extortion scandal.

On June 18, 2020, a court in Skopje sentenced Janeva to seven years in prison for abuse of office in the extortion case, while the first suspect, a former TV station owner, got a nine-year prison sentence.

After the collapse of the SPO, Kamcev was detained on March 14, 2021 on suspicion of money laundering in another case connected with the illicit purchase of land plots, involving ex-PM Gruevski, due to fears that he might flee the country, the public prosecutor office for organised crime and corruption announced at the time.

Kamcev was one of the six suspects in the case investigated since October 2020. The first suspect is Gruevski, who fled to Budapest in 2018 after receiving a prison sentence in another high-level corruption case.

Gruevski allegedly received some donations for the now opposition VMRO-DPMNE party personally in the period from 2006 to 2012, gaining at least €1.3mn that was not reported in the party’s financial statements.

Then, in the period from October 2012 to September 2013, Gruevski bought construction land in the prestigious Vodno residential area in Skopje through a local firm. Kamcev was allegedly involved in the illegal transactions.

The Prosecutor's Office for Prosecution of Organized Crime filed money laundering charges before the end of the second month of Kamcev's detention.

Other defendants in the case include Gruevski’s cousin ex-secret police chief Saso Mijalkov, Gruevski’s best man Risto Novacevski and three other people. Only Kamcev, the fifth defendant, is in detention in connection to this case. The two passports that Kamcev possessed, one issued by Republic of Macedonia, now North Macedonia, and the other from Bulgaria have been seized by the judicial authorities.

The prosecutor in charge of the Plots on Vodno case, for which Kamcev is in detention, is Lile Stefanova, who was also a prosecutor in the former SPO. According to broadcaster Telma, Kamcev’s lawyers demanded the prosecution office exclude Stefanova from the case, saying she presented false evidence, but the request was rejected.

Kamcev’s lawyers believe, according to media reports, that there is no evidence of the crime for which Kamcev is charged.

Plots on Vodno case continues

Meanwhile, the court process against Kamcev and other defendants in Plots on Vodno case continues. According to broadcaster Telma, at the last court session held on October 22, the defence lawyers presented details for what they say were the illegal attempts by Stefanova to obtain evidence against Kamcev.

Namely, Stefanova, through her private email address, corresponded with the Justice Ministry of Cyprus, in order to obtain international legal assistance, violating procedures of international law. Kamcev’s lawyers argued that evidence obtained by prosecutors in this way is illegitimate.

“It is very worrying to see allegations of arbitrary detention levelled at the justice system of any aspiring EU candidate state. Mr Kamcev’s case raises serious questions about the government of North Macedonia’s commitment to stand by the protections they supposedly provide private citizens under the law and the constitution. Transparency and justice in this case in particular may provide a very important boost for rule of law for all North Macedonians in general.” London-based consulting firm Sans Frontieres Associates cited Figel as saying in a press release dated October 12.

51-year old Kamcev, one of the richest people in the country, is the owner of Orka Holding and he and his family are also involved in many businesses in North Macedonia, with strong business network across the Western Balkans including in healthcare, hotels, food and dairy, textiles, banking, publishing and sports.

Kamcev’s businesses include partnership in Acibadem Sistina Hospital, a joint project with a Turkish partner. Acibadem Sistina Clinical Hospital is now the largest and most advanced private hospital in the Western Balkans region, with a patient database numbering over 621,000. More than 2,500 people are employed in companies owned by the businessman.