Yugoslavs Welcome Amnesty Law

Thousands of exiled Yugoslav draft-dodgers prepare to return home under new amnesty law

Yugoslavs Welcome Amnesty Law

Thousands of exiled Yugoslav draft-dodgers prepare to return home under new amnesty law

Friday, 2 March, 2001

For eight years, Nikola Milicevic, a 32-year-old French language a literature teacher, has been wandering around Europe. He presently works as a salesman in a Prague jewellery shop.

Nikola fled Serbia in 1993 when he received his call-up papers for the Yugoslav army at the height of the Bosnian conflict. Convicted in absentia as a draft-dodger, he could not return to Serbia.

But Nikola expects to do so in the next few days and, at last, will be able to visit the graves of his parents who died while he was living in exile.

Earlier this week the Yugoslav parliament passed an amnesty law pardoning thousands of young men who refused to fight in Milosevic's wars and nearly 1,000 political prisoners, most of whom are ethnic Albanian.

Only those convicted of grave criminal offences, including terrorism, crimes against humanity and international law, and the manufacture and selling of narcotics, would be exempt from pardon.

The legislation serves several important political aims for the new Yugoslav authorities.

An amnesty for draft-dodgers was a key and highly popular pre-election promise. Many young, well-educated people can now return home, which will be a major boost to the country.

Research by Silvano Bolcic, professor of philosophy at the University of Belgrade, indicates some 320,000 people left Yugoslavia during the four wars in the 1990s. Around 220,000 of these exiles were young people.

By pardoning Albanian political prisoners, Belgrade is expressing its willingness to cooperate with the international community, whose financial assistance is vital to the country's post-Milosevic transition.

While Milosevic was in power, the amnesty issue became a focus of conflict between government and opposition deputies. Every time the latter tried to raise the issue in parliament, the former would howl them down with accusations of treachery.

As expected, Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia, the Yugoslav Left, JUL and Vojislav Seselj's Serbian Radical Party, SRS, now themselves the opposition, remained dead against the amnesty policy during a recent debate in the federal parliament.

But no one anticipated the exchanges would become quite so heated. The debate was peppered with skirmishes, threats and swearing.

Federal Defence Minister Slobodan Krapovica became so annoyed by the abusive heckling coming from Seselj, he walked up to the SRS leader and slapped him in the face. Seselj then leapt forward to retaliate. Only the intervention of nearby deputies prevented the situation degenerating into a brawl.

An expressionless Mirjana Markovic, wife of Milosevic and the JUL's only deputy, looked on from the opposition front bench - her first appearance in parliament without her normal entourage of personal security guards.

Ms Markovic, dressed in black, wearing no make-up, and looking rather bloated around the face, then stood up to add her contribution. In a broken voice, she read out a staunchly patriotic speech, which had deputies exchanging astonished glances. Some were even laughing.

Federal Transport Minister Zoran Sami reminded Ms Markovic that her son, Marko, had been busy opening a bakery business in Pozarevac and a perfume shop in Belgrade, while the sons of other Serbian families were being packed off to Kosovo to fight and die.

A large proportion of the draft-dodgers who fled the country currently live in Hungary because Western European countries were closed to them. Budapest alone is home to an estimated 20,000 - many of whom were convicted in absentia.

"During the army's mobilisation for Kosovo I ran away to Hungary," said Jovan, a 30-year-old engineer. "When it was all over, I wanted to go home. On the Yugoslav-Hungarian border I was arrested and told I had been sentenced in my absence to five years.

" I was lucky because my parents managed to solve the problem, using family connections. But I spent three days in solitary confinement in Nis prison. It was dreadful."

While the new law has been universally welcomed, only Yugoslav non-government organisations and intellectuals have openly praised the pardoning of Albanian political prisoners. The media, politicians and the public at large have avoided talking or writing about this more contentious issue.

During the conflict in Kosovo, hundreds of Kosovo Albanians were arrested by the Serbian police and taken to prisons inside Serbia. They were prosecuted in a series of speedy, political trials, without any respect for basic legal procedures.

Charged with terrorism offences, they received long prison sentences. Flora Brovina, a renowned Albanian poet and human rights activist, was sentenced to 12 years.

When Milosevic was overthrown, official policy towards the Albanian prisoners shifted, especially due to pressure from the international community.

President Vojislav Kostunica freed Brovina shortly after taking office, but officials estimate over 700 other Albanians remained behind bars in Serbia.

The amnesty has given the Serbian government another valid reason for pressing the United Nations administration in Kosovo, UNMIK, to investigate the fate of missing and kidnapped Serbs in the province.

Serbian justice minister Vladan Batic recently demanded UNMIK act on this issue.

"As Kosovo is still part of Serbia and Yugoslavia, it's logical for the amnesty law to be applicable to those Serbs either on trial or serving time in Kosovo prisons," Batic said.

The amnesty law is, as the government said, a step towards minimising injustice. But, sadly, the legislation cannot bring back those who died during the conflict in Kosovo, or in any other of Milosevic's wars.

Ivan Nikolic is a journalist for magazine Vreme in Belgrade

Serbia, Kosovo
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