Countries increase confiscation of criminal assets

05/02/2014

By seizing criminals' assets, countries in the region hope to prevent corruption and crime.

By Drazen Remikovic for Southeast European Times in Banja Luka -- 05/02/14

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Several yachts have been confiscated as criminal property in the region. [AFP]

Police departments throughout the region are collecting houses, boats, money and other ill-gotten possessions as a deterrent against crime, corruption and fraud.

"When you confiscate someone's house, a yacht and the money from the bank, then this is the best way to stop him to deal further with corruption and crime. This also serves as an example to others who wants to deal with that,'' Sead Hodzic, an attorney from Sarajevo and a former judge of the Supreme Court of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), told SETimes.

The Federation of BiH is the most recent government in the region to adopt a law allowing confiscation of criminal property, having approved a measure in 2013. Republika Srpska (RS) and Croatia adopted such laws in 2010, and Serbia did so in 2009.

In essence, the laws in all of the regional countries work on the same principle: The state temporarily seizes property from persons who are suspected of organised crime or corruption. If defendants are found guilty of the crimes, their property is confiscated permanently.

Last month, BiH seized 10 million euros worth of assets owned by Zoran Copic, a close associate of Montenegrin drug lord Darko Saric.

On January 24th, the RS Supreme Court sentenced Copic to four years in prison for money laundering, and the court ordered his property be seized because the prosecutor proved that it was obtained through criminal means.

"It is so far the largest value of permanently confiscated property, not only in the RS, but also in the region. RS has temporarily blocked assets worth 25 million euros [since 2010],'' Mirna Soja, a spokeswoman at the RS Ministry of Internal Affairs, told SETimes.

"In the past two years, BiH has done much to develop the security sector and to create preconditions for the fight against crime and corruption. We need to show that crime does not pay. We must ensure that we have the mechanisms to effectively confront crime and corruption and to create mechanisms for the confiscation of illegally acquired assets. Although we have certain results, we must continue to improve legislation and institutions," Mladen Cavar, deputy security minister in BiH, told SETimes.

The practice of seizing the property of criminal groups is also part of EU legislation. The first such law was introduced in Italy in 1982, after which almost all Union member countries adopted similar legislation.

The Union is currently conducting a two-year project to bring BiH law enforcement closer to the level required for the Union membership.

Aleksander Jevsek, one of the leaders of the project, said the group will provide legislation guidance, which will provide a strong base for the state law.

"The state law will be further enhanced in relation to the entities' laws and will give greater powers for investigators. There was a case when a felon who illegally acquired assets, after being processed, prescribed the property posted on relatives. With new regulations, the ownership of property will be followed in those directions also, and will be confiscated if the investigator proves that it was earned illegally, regardless of who owns it," Jevsek said.

Croatia confiscated about 468 real estate properties, two yachts, 10 vehicles and about 450 pieces of art in the past three years. Officials said the state must secure the property and maintain its condition.

"Confiscated cars are kept in specially designated warehouses, paintings in museums, money in a special bank account. If the property is permanently confiscated, the state can use the property. For example, cars are given to social welfare centres and the interior affairs ministry. Apartments and real estate are also allocated to the resident centres for social welfare, and for the accommodation of asylum seekers," Ivana Ivankovic, a spokesperson at the Croatian Office for State Property Management, told SETimes.

Kosovo authorities recently opened a new depot in Pristina as a storage facility for all seized property and illegal assets. Officials say they sold seized property valued at 500,000 euros in a recent month, with the money going back into the state budget.

Since 2009, Serbia has seized about 100 apartments, 30 houses, several office buildings, a hotel, more than 100 cars, artworks and a ship.

The country rents most of the seized property, bringing in 90,000 euros a month to the state coffers, according to the justice ministry.

"This practice is sending a clear message that crime does not pay. If it is proven that the person obtains property with crime activities, the property is, by a court decision, permanently taken away and becomes the property of Serbia," the justice ministry said in a written statement for SETimes.

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Ivana Korajlic, spokesperson for Transparency International BiH, said the law is an important tool for authorities.

"Confiscation of such assets is of utmost importance in the prosecution of corruption and organised crime cases, because it prevents the 'viability' of these types of crime. However, the results are still insufficient and the judicial system needs to be much more effective," Korajlic told SETimes.

Correspondent Linda Karadaku in Pristina contributed to this report.

What should be done with criminal property that is seized by the state? Add your thoughts below.

This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.
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