Wrongly convicted, jailed for a decade and now finally free to tell his story
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What Zlate Cvetanovski remembers most clearly about the day he was sentenced to a decade in jail for drug trafficking was the courtroom being packed full of the police officers responsible for locking him away.
“There must have been 20 Purana taskforce detectives there. They were all doing high-fives, slapping each on the back. It was like they’d won Tattslotto,” Mr Cvetanovski says. “And all of them knew the way they achieved that result was by fraud.”
Finally free: Zlate Cvetanovski had his conviction quashed and his prison term overturned after the court ruled it was unsafe.Credit:Jason South
Nearly a decade later, Mr Cvetanovski is sitting in his lawyer’s office watching on a laptop as three judges from the Court of Appeal announce that he’s a free man.
His conviction as an alleged lieutenant in the Mokbel drug cartel has been quashed as a “substantial miscarriage of justice” and the now 54-year-old, who has been out on bail since May, stands exonerated.
What the court found was that Mr Cvetanovski's trial was irrevocably contaminated when Victoria Police secretly paid more than $10,000 to the jailhouse witness who was key to securing his downfall.
“It's like coming out of a coma, really,” Mr Cvetanovski says.
Friday’s decision marked the end of an ordeal that began with his arrest in 2006 for what Mr Cvetanovski says was a trumped-up drug-trafficking case orchestrated by his lawyer Nicola Gobbo, Victoria Police and a former associate who can only be referred to as "Mr Cooper".
On Friday the Court of Appeal ruled in his favour: the case had been fatally contaminated, the judges said.
From 2006 to 2011, detectives from the Purana anti-gangland taskforce used falsified money orders to pay more than $10,000 into the prison canteen account of "Mr Cooper", who would be central to the elite police squad securing the convictions of 24 people, including Mr Cvetanovski.
The existence of those “inducements” were kept hidden while Mr Cvetanovski – who pleaded not guilty – spent nearly a decade researching his case, making court applications and filing appeals.
Faruk Orman (third from left) with Ruth Parker (second from left) on the steps of the Supreme Court after his conviction was quashed.Credit:Eddie Jim
Mr Cvetanovski got no response but, unbeknownst to him, a secret legal war had begun between Victoria Police and the DPP about whether former clients of Ms Gobbo could be told she may have corrupted their cases.
“If you read that letter and look at the situation now, it's pretty much spot on,” he says.
But it wouldn’t be the stunning revelations of misconduct by Ms Gobbo exposed by the High Court in 2018 and then later by the Royal Commission into the Management of Police Informants that set Mr Cvetanovski on the path to exoneration. In 2020, Mr Cvetanovski’s legal team at Galbally Parker uncovered a series of mysterious payments made into the prison account of Mr Cooper.
In Cvetanovksi’s 2011 trial, the judge described Mr Cooper’s evidence as “pivotal” to the prosecution case and directed the jury that if its members were not satisfied beyond reasonable doubt about his evidence they should acquit him.
In his lawyer’s office watching the verdict.Credit:Jason South
Eventually, solicitor Ruth Parker tracked the money back to postal orders that had been purchased in the name of Mr Cooper’s sister by investigators pursuing Mr Cvetanovski. In the wake of the revelation about the secret police payments in early October, the Court of Appeal announced it would hand down a decision on his appeal on Friday.
Mr Cvetanovski and Ms Parker had wanted to have the matter heard inside a courtroom so he could literally walk out the doors a free man, but COVID-19 made that impossible. When he showed up at the Lonsdale Street office of Galbally Parker to watch the hearing remotely, he came with bottles of champagne and scotch in anticipation of a victory celebration.
“I thought I was gonna be nervous, but I'm not nervous. I feel great, actually. I had a good sleep,” he says.
The hearing itself took only a matter of minutes. Conviction quashed, accused exonerated, no new trial allowed.
Mr Cooper, Mr Cvetanovski says, is a “peddler of lies”. As for Victoria Police and the Purana detectives who put him in jail, he would like to see them brought to justice. “I think that the rule of law should apply to them the same as it did to me. They should receive the same scrutiny as I did.”
And then there’s praise for Ms Parker and her team. Last year, Ms Parker was instrumental in securing the exoneration of Faruk Orman, whose murder conviction the court deemed hopelessly corrupted by Ms Gobbo’s actions.
"Ruth’s two for two and everyone else is zero," Mr Cvetanovski says.
He is challenging three other criminal convictions which he says are also unfair, but Friday’s exoneration was the key. Mr Cvetanovski and his lawyer declined to comment on whether he planned to sue Victoria Police over his case. However, it is likely he will seek compensation through a lawsuit as Mr Orman did following his exoneration last year.
He had been granted bail in May, shortly before Melbourne went back into its second-wave COVID-19 lockdown. The city was shocked but, according to Mr Cvetanovski, “I was bouncing around, happy, saying: ‘What’s the problem?’ When they introduced the five-kilometre rule, I was, ‘So what?’ I was used to having a 50-metre perimeter.” Meanwhile, with lockdown coming to an end, Mr Cvetanovski is planning to take a holiday with the family and then “get on with life”.
“Who knows, I might write a movie about all this.”
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