Serbia: Indictees' Cash Law Controversy

Many politicians and activists critical of move to provide state help for those accused of war crimes.

Serbia: Indictees' Cash Law Controversy

Many politicians and activists critical of move to provide state help for those accused of war crimes.

Wednesday, 9 November, 2005

A law which grants a financial allowance to detained Hague war crimes suspects and their families has split Serbia's ruling coalition and been criticised by local human rights campaigners.

The law, which was passed on March 30, allows for the payment of around 100 euro per month to detainees in The Hague, and the reimbursement of telephone bills up to the value of 70 euro.

It also entitles indictees' family members to an unspecified monthly sum for the time that the accused spends in detention, and reimburses them for travel and accommodation expenses abroad for the purpose of visiting their jailed relatives.

This is not the first special provision for Hague indictees. Last summer, legislation was passed to give financial assistance to suspects who surrendered voluntarily - 16 are currently receiving the stipend.

The day after the latest legislation was passed, Washington decided to suspend a 25 million US dollar tranche of aid to Belgrade for not fully cooperating with tribunal.

Serbia has faced growing international pressure to detain Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, whom the Hague chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte claims are hiding in the republic. But officials here say they have no knowledge of their whereabouts.

The Serbian media responded scathingly to the new legislation, expressing outrage that Milosevic and other indictees who grew rich under his rule will now be granted taxpayers money.

"If Milosevic sold one of his villas, he'd be able to afford eight years' defence from the most expensive lawyers," the daily Blic declared.

Finance Minister Mladjan Dinkic - who is expected to release details of the exact criteria for state aid shortly - said the legislation would not apply to Milosevic or others who "amassed illegal fortunes" during the war, and that only jobless detainees or those on below-average salaries will qualify.

The legislation also divided the coalition government. Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica's Serbian Democratic Party, DSS, Vojislav Seselj's ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party, SRS, and Slobodan Milosevic's Socialists, SPS, voted for the law, while the Serbian Renewal Movement, SPO, and New Serbia, NS, opposed it and the Liberal G17 Plus abstained.

Ksenija Milivojevic, deputy head of the G17 caucus in the Serbian parliament, and chairwoman of the parliamentary committee for European integration, told IWPR that her party was not against the new legislation in itself.

She said that it could potentially encourage some indicted war crimes suspects to surrender voluntarily, but "what is problematic is the unclear manner in which these allowances are to be allocated, as well as their retroactive nature".

But SPO leader Vuk Draskovic was far more critical, describing the legislation as "scandalous", in a statement to the media.

Representatives of the DSS said they backed the new allowances because, they said, all accused persons - including the Hague detainees - were innocent until proven guilty. At the same time, though, the party dismissed claims that the move was designed to help Milosevic, who has been in the Hague detention unit since 2001.

While the legislation divided politicians, it appeared to unite several Serbian human rights NGOs who had previously been at loggerheads.

They released a joint statement describing the law as a backward step. "War criminals are becoming national heroes," it read. "The victims are disparaged and reforms undermined."

Natasa Kandic of the Humantarian Law Fund said the move was "a governmental blunder" that does not bode well for smooth relations with the tribunal.

Kandic also said that the law was discriminatory, as it favours war crimes indictees over any other form of accused, "For instance, a man who causes a traffic accident will go to detention without any salary and no right to any allowances."

And she disagreed with Milivojevic's claim that it could encourage some suspects to give themselves up.

Daniel Sunter is IWPR assistant editor in Belgrade.

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