The real crime-fighting 'Charlie's Angels'

By Lucy Ash
BBC News, Macedonia

image copyrightRobert Atanasovski

Three women have become the scourge of Macedonia's political elite and heroines of the street protests now rocking the tiny Balkan nation - some call them the country's Charlie's Angels.

At six o'clock in the evening, a noisy crowd gathers outside a non-descript office next to a burger bar in the centre of Skopje. They are of all ages from students to pensioners. Some have painted faces, many blow whistles and trumpets. These demonstrators have been coming almost every night for weeks to support the country's special prosecutor and her team.

She may now be one of the most famous women in the country but until last September, few had heard of Katica Janeva. As chief prosecutor in the small border town of Gevgelija, her work mainly consisted of pursuing petty thieves and people-smugglers.

But now she has been thrust centre stage in this turbulent former Yugoslav republic. Her new job is to probe claims of wrongdoing and corruption raised by a huge wiretapping scandal.

Last year Macedonia's main opposition party got its hands on masses of secretly recorded phone conversations. It alleged that the government had sought to tighten its control over the country of two million by eavesdropping on the phone calls of more than 20,000 people.

image copyrightRobert Atanasovski
image captionKatica Janeva leads the team of special prosecutors investigating wiretapping

A report by the European Commission concluded that the wiretaps had been conducted by the security services acting on order from the prime minister at the time, Nicola Gruevski.

When the tapes were made public last May, they appeared to contain direct involvement of high-ranking politicians and officials in electoral fraud, abuse of power, criminal damage, police brutality and even attempts to cover up a murder. Tens of thousands of outraged citizens took to the streets.

image captionLence Ristovska speaks at a press conference

Eventually the crisis was defused through a deal brokered by the European Union.

It was decided that Prime Minister Gruevski would step down early to pave the way for free and fair elections. Secondly all parties agreed to establish an independent Special Prosecutor's Office to investigate the claims raised by the wiretaps.

The office is staffed by 11 prosecutors and backed up by a team of investigators. But all eyes are on the three fearless women at the top.

Janeva, a wavy-haired woman with a wide smile is usually flanked by two younger female lieutenants. Lence Ristovska, is a Slav while Fatime Fetai belongs to the Albanian minority which makes up a quarter of Macedonia's population. Together they are a powerful symbol of unity in a country still rife with ethnic tension and which came to the brink of civil war in 2001.

Ristovska is cool, collected and blonde with ice-blue eyes while Fetai, with jet black hair and bright red lipstick is famous for her fiery rhetoric.

Find out more

Lucy Ash's report - Macedonia's Colourful Revolution - is broadcast as part of Assignment on BBC World Service, 03:32 GMT, 23 June - catch up on BBC iPlayer Radio

In one alleged case of police brutality, Fetai caused a stir at a press conference by graphically describing how a minister who had fallen out of favour was handcuffed and thrown on a toilet floor with a gun pressed to his face for the benefit of government-friendly TV cameras. There were sharp intakes of breath as she repeated the swear words used by the police officers involved.

Some have called the trio Macedonia's Charlie's Angels after the tough but glamorous crime-fighting force in the US movie and TV series. You can find images of them on posters, walls, pavements and t-shirts with the letters CJO the initials of the Special Prosecutor's Office in Macedonian.

image captionProtesters model the 'Charlie's Angels' t-shirt during an anti-government rally

"They're the first real glimmer of hope that justice can happen in this country," says Damian, a young medical student wearing one of the now ubiquitous t-shirts. "Their message is that the law is the law and nobody can go above it and beyond it."

Ristovska says she and her colleagues are grateful for the support of the demonstrators but feels uncomfortable when people ask the women to pose with them for selfies or to sign their t-shirts. "We are not rock stars. We are professionals and it's a bit awkward," she laughs. "It's strange that we are treated as VIPs now."

Initially Gruevski heaped praise on the chief prosecutor Janeva, describing her as an experienced professional who had received training abroad in Italy and the US.

Few believed she would take on cases involving some of the most powerful men in the country. But backed up by her team, Janeva wasted no time asking awkward questions about the procurement of Israeli surveillance equipment by the head of secret police - who happens to be Gruevski's cousin.

Soon the prime minister changed his tune, accusing the special prosecutor of being a "puppet of the opposition" and part of a conspiracy to remove him from office. She was undeterred.

"Justice will prevail in spite of the construed political claims against me and my colleagues," Janeva told a packed press conference in February. Then she announced another investigation, codenamed Titanic, targeting Gruevski himself and a cluster of ministers for their alleged role in electoral fraud.

People were initially sceptical because of the country's entrenched patronage system. "In this country you don't get an important job without approval from the top," says Biljana Ginova, a human rights defender and seasoned protestor.

But after the first press conference, she adds, she was impressed to see that the special prosecutors followed legal procedures and appeared impartial, independent and fiercely dedicated to their job.

"They really mean business," she says. "And they're three women, come on. It's very empowering for all the women in this society - usually all the important decisions here are made by men."

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionFormer Prime Minister Nicola Gruevski, the man at the centre of the wiretapping scandal

Perhaps the men at the top were feeling scared because in April, Janeva's team was blocked by the Macedonian President's decision to pardon 56 politicians and officials under investigation. His controversial amnesty triggered the latest wave of protests, known as the Colourful Revolution, in which demonstrators began throwing paint-filled balloons at monuments and buildings across the capital.

Under pressure from the streets, the EU and the US, Macedonia's president later revoked the pardons. But the special prosecutors still face an uphill task and have mountains of evidence to plough through - including some 546,000 audio tapes.

In their third-floor office, Ristovska tells me it would take all 11 prosecutors a year and a half just to listen to all the illegally recorded phone calls.

"Believe me, it's impossible to listen to this stuff for more than three hours a day because you really have to concentrate and stay focused," she says.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionAnti-government protesters pour buckets of paint in front of government buildings, April 2016

The pressure is intense because the special prosecutors were only given 18 months to file indictments or drop all the charges and one third of their time is already up - the clock started ticking last December.

One of the cases they are investigating involves the demolition of a new residential complex owned by Fijat Canoski, a Macedonian Muslim businessman. The government argued that the apartment block was 1.43cm too high and violated planning rules.

But Canoski says his Cosmos apartment block was only half-built and that the real reason it was targeted was because he had left Gruevski's ruling coalition and because he used some of his own money to keep an independent TV station on air.

The opposition released several taped phone calls between Gruevski and one of his ministers discussing preparations to flatten the building. You can hear the prime minister laughing as he learns about the dynamite and the wrecking machines used for the job.

image copyrightAFP
image captionFijat Canoski believes his property was demolished by the government as an act of political revenge

The special prosecutors recently announced that Gruevski, as well as his former transport minister Mile Janakieski and the mayor of the district, are suspected of abuse of office.

Under the terms of the EU-brokered agreement, Gruevski stepped down in January. But he remains president of the ruling party, (the VMRO-DPMNE) and a powerful force of Macedonian politics.

The VMRO party's headquarters boast a marble fountain whose water jets are set up to make sounds that imitate clapping. Here I meet party spokesman Ivo Kotevski who is scathing about Janeva and her team. He accuses them of "working outside the constitution and the law".

When I ask him why, he jabs his finger at the front page of a local pro-government newspaper. There is a photograph of Janeva with a professor of architecture who is giving her his expert opinion on the demolition of the Cosmos building.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionProtesters throw paint at portraits of Gruevski and President Ivanov, in front of government buildings in Skopje

"That man is a member of the opposition party, the SDSM," fumes Kotevski. "He is often at the protests and he is not neutral in any way."

Ristovska says he wasn't put forward by them, but that the architectural faculty at the university in Skopje told the prosecutor's office the expert in question was the best man for the job. "There were no legal grounds to exclude him," she says, "but a lot of people do try to present our work as biased - that's a fact." She adds that she and her colleagues try to publish accurate information about their work on the special prosecutors' own Facebook page."

The special prosecutors suffer frequent attacks in a hostile pro-government media, as well as threats. Janeva must be conscious of the risks. She recently travelled to Sicily to attend a memorial service for a man who has inspired her - Giovanni Falcone, the judge assassinated by the Sicilian mafia.

So far Janeva's office has opened seven cases and has 60 people under investigation. But that is just a fraction of the alleged crimes here that people want answers to.

image copyrightBBC Sport
image captionAlexander Neskovski at his brother Martin's graveside

Alexander Neskovski would like Janeva's team to look into the murder of his younger brother Martin. The young man was beaten to death in Skopje's central Macedonia Square as the ruling party was celebrating its victory in the 2011 elections. Circumstances surrounding the incident remain murky and there are several questions about what happened afterwards.

An officer from the Tigers, a special police unit, was later jailed for the crime but what shocked Macedonians when they heard the wiretapped calls was the way the murder was dealt with by the authorities.

In one tape, the spokesman Kotevski can be heard talking to the interior minister. They seem to be discussing how to explain to the public why the young man was killed by one of Gruevski's bodyguards when the officer in question was not officially on duty that night. Kotevski appears to suggest that the blame should be pinned on a policeman from the opposition.

Cases under investigation by the special prosecutor

  • TNT - allegations that the prime minister and his associates illegally dynamited a building owned by rival politician and businessman Fijat Canovski
  • Titanic - in which ministers are suspected of electoral violations
  • Torture - one suspect is the former head of the secret police, Gruevski's cousin Saso Mijalkov, who stands accused of instructing officers to torture former interior minister and government critic Ljube Boskoski during his arrest in 2011
  • Fortress - which centres on the illegal destruction of police surveillance equipment last year, after the opposition published details of alleged illegal wiretapping
  • Coup - in which Zoran Zaev, leader of the main opposition party the SDSM is accused of trying to blackmail Gruevski, demanding his resignation in exchange for not releasing details of the illegal wiretaps to the public
  • Transporter - looking into embezzlement in the school bus system in the city of Bitola

When I ask him about the tape he says it was doctored to present him and his party in a bad light. "The opposition leader is playing a very dirty game," he says.

Meanwhile, the protestors are keeping up the pressure on the streets. "No justice - no Peace," they chant as they march through the city centre.

"We have to let the special prosecutors do their job," says one middle-aged woman, "and I'm here to back them."

Lence Ristovska says she and her fellow special prosecutors appreciate the popular support but most state institutions are either refusing to cooperate with them or dragging their feet.

What's more, many argue that a special prosecution is not much use without a special court. Under the current system, high court judges are only appointed after they've had a lengthy chat with the secret police.

If the special prosecutors cannot prevail, some fear the demonstrators' paint-filled balloons may be replaced by other weapons - in a country with weak institutions and little experience of democracy on the frontline of Europe's refugee crisis.

image copyrightGetty Images

Lucy Ash's report - Macedonia's Colourful Revolution - is broadcast as part of Assignment on BBC World Service, 03:32 GMT, 23 June - catch up on BBC iPlayer Radio