Albanian mayor gets suspended sentence in Serbia

BELGRADE, Apr 3, 2000 -- (Reuters) An ethnic Albanian mayor given a suspended jail sentence in volatile southeast Serbia shrugged off the case on Friday, saying the authorities "did not have the courage" either to drop two-year-old charges or impose a harsh penalty.

"People here are so used to years of repression," Riza Halimi, mayor of the majority ethnic Albanian town of Presevo, told Reuters by telephone. "This is nothing compared to being beaten up in a restaurant for no reason at all."

Halimi was sentenced on Wednesday to three months in prison, suspended for a year. The charge was "obstructing security and public order" during a March 1998 protest in support of ethnic Albanians in neighboring Kosovo.

Word of the verdict reached journalists on Friday through the Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Fund.

Halimi denied the charge but said the case was not likely to provoke fresh trouble in the region, where clashes between police and ethnic Albanian guerrillas have killed at least 13 people since NATO's air war forced the Serbian government to surrender control of Kosovo.

Local people are bitter at the way the authorities treat them but do not want to see a re-run of the Kosovo conflict, Halmi said.

"Take for example the teachers' or other protests all over Serbia. People here are worse off, but you don't see a single protest over anything in Bujanovac or Presevo."

Halimi said the court had issued a mild sentence because Serbian officials "did not have the courage to admit their mistake".

"It boils down to political pressure because there was simply nothing concrete, no arguments to prove the charges."

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