Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Serbian Justice On Trial

The prosecution of a Kosovo Albanian human rights activist on terrorism charges has exposed serious gaps in the rule of law in Serbia.
By Laura Rozen
Flora Brovina, a paediatrician, poet and human rights activist from Pristina, appeared in court in Nis, Serbia, November 11, to face charges of "conspiring to commit hostile acts" and terrorism.

There has been considerable concern that Dr. Brovina, one of the most prominent Kosovo Albanians in Serb custody, will be denied a fair trial by the Serbian authorities.

One incident at the end of the day's court proceedings added credence to these concerns.

According to one international observer, who wishes to remain anonymous, Brovina's husband, Ajri Begu, asked the judge if he could speak to his wife as she was led away.

One of the judges said, "Go right ahead." But when Begu approached his wife, the police taking Brovina out of the room said he was not allowed to speak with her. Legally the police do not have the right to tell a court what to do, but in this instance their arbitrary decision went unchallenged.

"It was obvious which was more powerful: a court decision or police instructions," said Nikola Barovic, a Belgrade attorney and legal advisor to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR). "The police are stronger than the court. The police said no and it was no, who cares for the judge. That frightens me."

Barovic has voiced fear that the rule of law in Serbia is disintegrating. Cases of people convicted and sentenced to long jail terms on the basis of little or no evidence are on the increase, as are incidents of police ignoring or failing to implement court rulings.

Brovina, 50, was arrested on April 20 in Pristina and later transferred to Pozarevac. She had been working for several months at a clinic for internally displaced refugees. "The whole indictment is based on items confiscated from Dr. Brovina's medical clinic," explained Radovan Dedijer, a lawyer with the Humanitarian Law Centre in Belgrade.

"The 'crucial evidence' is some medicines they have taken from her office, a photo of Dr. Brovina with a member of the KLA [Kosovo Liberation Army], and wool donated by the British charity Oxfam, which the refugee women were using to knit sweaters. She is accused of making the sweaters for the KLA," he says.

One of Brovina's two defense lawyers, Husnije Bytyqi, an Albanian from Belgrade, requested the trial be postponed as he had yet to receive a copy of the indictment against Brovina. His request was denied. Brovina, who is reported to have suffered a stroke while in police custody, appeared dishevelled but otherwise well. She was escorted into the dock in handcuffs by three large security guards.

In her defence statement Brovina said her clinic was properly registered and was providing medical help "to children and women who were mostly refugees who had fled to Pristina". She said she was not a member of the self styled 'Kosovar government', but a member of a council on the emergency situation in Kosovo, in the capacity of medical adviser.

If convicted Brovina faces a prison term of between one and 10 years.

Human rights groups are eager to ensure that the fate of Kosovo Albanian prisoners less well known than Brovina are paid due attention. At least 1,900 Kosovo Albanians are known to be in Serbian custody. The UNHCHR has called for the immediate release of four vulnerable groups of prisoners: women, minors, the elderly, and the sick.

Lawyers with the Humanitarian Law Centre found a five-month-old baby on one visit to prisoners in Pozarevac. The baby's mother, Igbale Xhafaj, 20, from Urosevac, gave birth in her prison cell in May.

Serbian authorities have confirmed that there are currently 12 Kosovo Albanian women and 25 minors in Pozarevac prison. Aside from the baby, the youngest prisoner is Sabri Muzliu, 5, from Strubllove, a village near Glogovac, who is being held along with her sibling Shemsi, 14.

Another concern for human rights groups is the lack of transparency in the Serbian prison system. Lawyers complain prison authorities simply deny an individual is in their custody and refuse to provide information on their whereabouts or well being. There is some evidence that deaths in custody often go unreported.

Rumours abound of families buying the release of relatives and of prisoners being murdered in custody. Now stories are surfacing of private prisons run by ethnic Albanians in Kosovo where missing Serbs may be being detained.

On November 3, the Belgrade newspaper Danas reported claims by the owner of a private detective agency in Kragujevac that the father of an ethnic Albanian had approached him to search for his missing son. According to the news story, the father offered to pay $20,000 or to arrange a prisoner exchange. The father allegedly offered to secure the release of 10 kidnapped Kosovo Serbs.

The father claimed he knew of two private prisons - one in an old brick factory in the village of Poljance, 12 km outside Srbica in central Drenica, the other in the village of Tuslija, above Devic monastery. The report claimed the Serbian prisoners were hidden from KFOR forces in the mines.

Barbara Davis of the UNHCHR says the commission is investigating these reports, but they are as yet unconfirmed. KFOR has already shut down two KLA-run private prisons in the cities of Prizren and Gnjilane.

Davis' commission is trying to compile a comprehensive list of all detained people, of all ethnic communities, and to identify those considered vulnerable in order to press for their immediate release. "It's not just peoples' lives that are being ruined in these trials," says Davis. "It's the entire state of rule of law. And whether or not there can be rule of law and respect for the rule of law is at stake."

The conviction of Kosovo prisoners on the basis of no evidence, as well as the growing number of arrests of Serbian pro-democracy activists on no legitimate charges, has convinced some human rights activists that there can be no rule of law in Serbia without major political change. "Elections on the republic level is the only way to stop this chaos," Barovic, the lawyer, added. "Only with a change of government will there be a chance to reform Serbia's legal system."

Brovina's trial is scheduled to resume on November 25.

Laura Rozen, a regular contributor to IWPR, is a journalist specialising in the Balkans.