November 29, 1999
NYT - Serbia Begins a Legal Offensive


BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- In recent weeks, Serbia has become enveloped in a frenzy of arrests and trials that fills the television news programs and newspapers, enhancing the siege atmosphere in an isolated state.

The most dramatic accusations came Thursday when Information Minister Goran Matic revealed that Serbian authorities had uncovered a plot to assassinate President Slobodan Milosevic. Five men, Serbs from Bosnia and Serbia, were arrested and accused of plotting to kill the president under the supposed orders of the French intelligence service -- a charge France swiftly denied.

The men were mercenaries, Matic said, and, while working for the French, had also committed atrocities in Kosovo and at Srebrenica in Bosnia (where Serbian forces are thought to have slaughtered thousands of Muslim men in one of the worst mass killings in Europe since 1945).

At a news conference, Matic showed videotapes of the men and their passports, although he has yet to produce any direct evidence connecting them with an attempt to kill Milosevic.

The startling revelations nevertheless filled newspapers and news programs on state television.

Lawyers and human rights organizations say they detect increasing signs of what they call the government's isolation and paranoia. Several members of the opposition have been subject to violent attacks, harassment and hefty fines; around the country, there are trials of alleged members of paramilitary groups, supposed members of the Kosovo Liberation Army and people the authorities denounce as traitors.

Some of the judicial activity is normal, said Barbara Davis, representative in Belgrade for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. There is often a rush of trials from November through January, she said, since prosecutors tend to prepare them in September and October after the summer break.

Yet the war in Kosovo and the opposition rallies that followed the end of the war have resulted in an enormous number of political trials. Hundreds of ethnic Albanians arrested last spring in Kosovo during NATO's bombing campaign are now being tried, mostly on charges of terrorism. A number of Serbian civilians, among them a journalist, a television technician and an icon painter, have recently gone on trial for undermining the authority of the state.

And now the authorities have begun prosecuting members of paramilitary groups, accusing them of committing war crimes, spying for the foreign governments, and threatening the life of the president.

The five men in the latest case, four from Serbia and one from Bosnia, were arrested more than two weeks ago and have yet to go on trial.

Two other cases will soon begin. In the town of Kraljevo, 12 men, described as mujahedeen, or Islamic fighters, are to be tried for terrorism and conspiracy against Yugoslavia. The men are said by the authorities to possess passports from Sweden, Norway, Egypt and Turkey, and to belong to a unit from Bosnia. They were arrested on Serbia's border with Macedonia last year.

A Serb man from Kosovo is also expected to go on trial soon in the town of Pozarevac. Boban Petkovic, 33, from Velika Hoca, is charged with killing three Albanian civilians. Another man, Djordje Simic, 21, is to be tried as an accomplice.

These cases, reported in small scraps in the Belgrade newspapers, seem intended to try to blame the atrocities in Kosovo and even Bosnia on small groups of men and thus to excuse the government of Milosevic, who has been indicted in connection with war crimes by the international tribunal in The Hague. Yugoslavia refuses to cooperate with the tribunal.

But the cases that concern human rights lawyers most are those of Serbs imprisoned for clearly political reasons, and of the hundreds of Albanians from Kosovo, who are largely thought to be innocent of the kinds of crimes that have earned some of them long sentences. Lawyers and human rights organizations are scrambling to attend all the trials going on around the country.

Gradimir Nalic, a Belgrade lawyer and head of the Yugoslav Lawyers' Committee for Human Rights, is defending a television technician, Ivan Novkovic, who ran a tape on local television in his hometown of Leskovac last summer urging people to walk downtown to protest against the local Socialist-led government.

Timing his tape for the break in a widely watched soccer match, Novkovic drew an enormous crowd after the game. He is now on trial, accused of misusing his position at the television station, and damaging the reputation of the local government leader. His next court appearance is scheduled for Dec. 22.

He may experience the same fate as Bogoljub Arsenijevic, an icon painter from Valjevo, known by his nickname, Maki, who emerged as an inspirational leader of some of the opposition rallies in his town. He was recently jailed for three years on charges of using violence against the police during a demonstration.

Another case that concerns human rights organizations is that of Nebojsa Ristic, who ran the local television station in the small town of Soko Banja. His station was shut down, and the police confiscated two political posters, one advocating a free media and another for the Student Resistance, a student opposition movement.

Ristic was sentenced to one year in prison, convicted of undermining public confidence in the state authorities. "His father is dying, he's a man in his 30s, it's a case we are very concerned about," said Ms. Davis of the U.N. agency.

The fate of the Albanians is her greatest worry, said Ms. Davis. Flora Brovina, a well-known doctor from Kosovo, is the most prominent Albanian political prisoner. She is on trial in the southern Serbian city of Nis. Last week, for the second time, her case was postponed, this time because a key witness was said to have been delayed by bad weather.

"They are delaying the case because they cannot make a decision," said Nikola Barovic, U.N. legal counsel. "You see the results. Brovina is still in prison and they have time to make up their minds."

With strong international interest in her case, Dr. Brovina may be better off than most Albanians. Ten days ago, almost unnoticed, 12 Albanian farmers from Kosovo were sentenced in Prokuplje, a town in southern Serbia, Barovic said. All the men received sentences of 14 years for terrorism in what Barovic described as a sham trial, lacking in all legal standards and procedures.

"And the 13th man in that group was dead," he added. The man had died in police custody in May at the notorious Dubrava prison in Kosovo, he said.

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