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In Serbia's Clogged Courts, Bill Clinton Is On Trial Again

A local court in Serbia has summonsed Clinton on charges of war crimes. But this propaganda ploy masks the baleful state of Serbia's politicised judicial system.
By Vlado Mares

Amongst all the subpoenas, judicial pleadings and legal statements in the life of US president Bill Clinton, a summons from the district court in Valjevo, a small town 80 kilometres south-west of Belgrade, might have been easily missed.


Nevertheless it exists, in black and white.


"William Clinton, President of the United States of America," it says, "is summonsed to appear in room 14 of the District Court in Valjevo at 10.00 am on September 29 1999, to answer charges that he committed war crimes against civilian populations, in breach of Article 142 (provisions 1 and 2) and Article 22 of the Penal Code of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia."


For more than two months now the world's leaders have been called to answer charges - in absentia - by the prosecutors of Valjevo, and in 28 other towns across Serbia, including Kragujevac, Pozarevac, Zajecar, Leskovac and Nis.


The daily hearings, reported in extreme depth by the state media, cover the March 24-June 9 NATO air campaign, which in the prosecution's view, amounted to crimes both under the domestic Penal Code and international law, as "grave breaches" of the Geneva Conventions and a violation of the international "laws and customs" of war.


Also on the charge sheet: US State Secretary Madeleine Albright, US Defence Secretary William Cohen, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, British Foreign Minister Robin Cook, British Defence Minister George Robertson, French President Jacques Chirac and French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine.


Former NATO Secretary General Javier Solana and NATO Europe Commander Gen. Wesley Clark, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, and German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and German Defence Minister Rudolf Scharping join them.


The summons were sent to the accused by diplomatic channels, but it is not known if they reached their intended recipients. Either way, Bill Clinton did not appear on September 29 at 10.00 in room 14 of the Valjevo district court. Opposition lawyers dismiss the daily hearings as pure propaganda.


But the state media's extensive coverage of the cases also hides the fact that the same courts are simultaneously targeting other "enemies of the Yugoslav state" - those somewhat closer to home.


For example, in Valjevo, just as the case against Clinton, Blair and others was being heard, artist Bogoljub Arsenijevi Maki, founder of the town's Citizens' Resistance protest group, also went on trial. And unlike Clinton, he could not ignore the summons.


In August he had called a street protest against the regime that was broken up by police, and later on was beaten so badly in Belgrade that he nearly died. Now disabled, Arsenijevic is being tried for causing injuries to the policemen that attacked him. They are have been called as prosecution witnesses.


Ivan Novkovic, founder of the opposition Civic Parliament, is facing similar allegations. And on November 11, Kosovar doctor and poet Flora Brovina goes on trial in Nis, accused of terrorist offences. Brovina, founder of the League of Albanian Women, was arrested by plain-clothes Serbian police outside her apartment in Pristina on April 20, during the NATO bombing campaign.


Kosovo Albanians in political cases are often denied due process. There is considerable international concern that she will not receive a fair trial.


Meanwhile the independent media are being tried under the state's draconian new Information Law, designed to bring them down with punitive fines applied for often incomprehensible charges.


The Belgrade daily Danas, for example, was fined a crippling 20,000 marks for simply reprinting an account of a press conference given by Montenegrin politician Novak Kilibarda published in the Podgorica daily Vijesti.


Kilibarda reportedly said that Vojislav Seselj, leader of the nationalist Radical Party and Milosevic's coalition partner, had warned that if Montenegro seceded from the Yugoslav federation, Montenegrins in Serbia would be forcibly identified and made to wear yellow armbands. Seselj himself brought the case against Danas, claiming "personal offence".


On November 9 the paper heard that a member of Milosevic's ruling Socialist Party was also bringing suit against them, claiming "personal offence" for a report reprinted by Danas from the independent Belgrade news agency FoNet. This is the third such case brought against the paper; so far it has paid out more than 100,000 marks in punitive fines.


In all these cases the state media hold silent, in sharp contrast to the major coverage given to the "trials" of Clinton and others. For the Serbian courts have become the toy of President Slobodan Milosevic and his wife Mira Markovic. The state of the legal system in Serbia is at an all time low.


With court clerks earning just 1,200 dinars (80 German marks) a month - if salaries are paid - and even top judges less than 400 marks, corruption is common. Low morale and inefficiency can add years to the waiting time for a verdict in even simple civil law cases.


Strikes are banned in the Yugoslav judicial system, so staff took to holding two-hour "union meetings" as disguised stoppages in late October. Courts across Serbia were affected and unions are warning that they will call day-long "meetings" unless unpaid salaries are handed over and pay is increased.


Most staff were last paid in June. However the judges themselves have stayed out of the action. Court presidents warned court employees that they will follow orders from justice minister Dragoljub Jankovic and punish staff who join these "disguised strikes".


Jankovic, a member of Markovic's Yugoslav United Left (JUL) party, earned his post when president of the First Municipal Court in Belgrade, when he effectively legalised election fraud by ordering the annulment of local elections won by members of the opposition Zajedno coalition in 1996.


On November 2 he wrote to all the country's district court presidents, public prosecutors and presidents of the criminal justice bars, requesting them to ensure "respect of working hours" in their courts. "Measures in accordance with the law will be undertaken against those employees who commit a grave violation of their work duties," he said.


His ministry now threatens to issue dismissal notices, angering staff. The president of the Republic Judiciary Union, Njegos Poteznica, says the protests will go on, while Sinisa Matejasev, union president at the Municipal Court in Novi Sad, says the ministry's actions are "causing much more harm than anything we are doing". His fellow union members demand Jankovic's resignation.


Vlado Mares is IWPR's Belgrade correspondent.


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