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Human Rights Watch World Report 1998


Human Rights Developments

The government of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY), comprised of Serbia and Montenegro, demonstrated a blatant disregard for human rights throughout 1997. In November 1996, it annulled the results of local elections won largely by the opposition in Serbia and then beat those who protested; ethnic minorities suffered discrimination, imprisonment and torture because they are non-Serbs; the independent media was harassed; and, in violation of the Dayton Agreement, the government refused to hand persons indicted for war crimes over to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

On November 17, 1996, the opposition coalition Zajedno fared surprisingly well in municipal elections, winning in fourteen of Serbia's nineteen largest cities. The government annulled the results, citing "unspecified irregularities," which sparked massive demonstrations in Belgrade and other Serbian cities. A delegation from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) confirmed the opposition's victory, and the peaceful and creative demonstrations continued for eighty-eight days, demanding respect for the election results, media freedom and political pluralism in Serbia.

Beginning on December 26, the government used violence and arrests to silence the demonstrators. Although random incidents of police violence also took place at other times, it was especially at the end of December and again in the beginning of February that hundreds of peaceful demonstrators were beaten by the police or special riot forces, some of them seriously. Clearlyidentifiable journalists were sometimes targeted by the police. From late December to February, at least fifty people were arrested and convicted on charges of "destroying state property" or "disturbing the peace" in trials that did not comport with international standards.

At the same time, the Serbian government took steps to prevent the public from finding out about the demonstrations. The state-run television and radio-the main source of information for those outside of Belgrade-either ignored the demonstrators or referred to them as "hoodlums" and "vandals." On December 3, the government ordered Serbia's two main independent radio stations, Radio B-92 and Radio Index, to close because they did not possess the proper broadcasting license. The stations reopened after substantial international pressure, but a number of smaller independent stations remained closed. At the same time, the government harassed the independent print media by limiting print runs and restricting newsprint supplies.

The relentless public protest and substantial international pressure finally forced the government to recognize the opposition's victory on February 22, 1997. As of November, however, no one had been held accountable for the human rights abuses that occurred during the elections or the ensuing demonstrations, even though more than sixty criminal charges had been filed in Serbian courts against Belgrade policemen for using excessive force.

The state continued its harassment of the independent media throughout 1997, especially in the period leading up to the September 21 elections for a new Serbian president and parliament (former president of Serbia, Slobodon Milo_evic, was elected president of the FRY in August). In a coordinated action in July involving the Yugoslav Ministry for Transport and Telecommunications, the criminal police, the financial police, and various state agencies, the government temporarily shut down more than seventy-five private television and radio stations that, it claimed, were operating illegally. Many of the stations did not possess the proper broadcast license, due primarily to the government's unwillingness to grant licenses to stations that broadcast critical views of the state. The government consistently used the FRY's complex and contradictory broadcast laws and licensing procedures to deny licenses to the media outlets it considered "disloyal."

As the above events demonstrate, all citizens of the FRY suffered human rights violations, regardless of their ethnicity, if they criticized or opposed the rule of Slobodon Milo_evic. Throughout 1997, however, minority populations (non-ethnic Serbs and Montenegrins) continued to be especially susceptible to abuse. Ethnic Albanians, Hungarians, Muslims, Turks, and Roma were subjected to varying degrees of persecution, as in previous years, ranging from discriminatory legislation to arbitrary arrests, torture, and deaths in detention.

The most severe abuse occurred in the southwest region of Kosovo, inhabited by 1.8 million ethnic Albanians, who comprise 90 percent of the local population. Serb authorities continued to use political trials, police violence, and torture to repress ethnic Albanians, sometimes resulting in death.

In January 1997, the police arrested approximately one hundred ethnic Albanians accused of working with the Kosova Liberation Army, an underground organization that had taken credit for killing a number of Serbian officials and policemen since February 1996, as well as two ethnic Albanians it accused of collaborating with the Serbian government. On July 11, the district court in Pri_tina, Kosovo, sentenced fifteen of the detainees to combined prison terms of 264 years for terrorist activity. Serious violations of due process and the use of torture to extract confessions prevented the defendants from obtaining a fair trial. In October, another nineteen Albanians went on trial, including Nait Hasani, who was held in unacknowledged detention for one month and reportedly tortured. Jonuz Zeneli, who was scheduled for trial, died in a prison hospital on October17, reportedly due to ill-treatment at the hands of the police.

The Serbian authorities also continued to deny Albanians in Kosovo their right to free association and speech. Albanian organizations, from political parties to sports clubs, were often harassed by the police and security forces, and activists were taken in for "informative talks," which sometimes led to beatings in detention. No Albanian-language television or radio were allowed to broadcast from Kosovo, and the print media faced economic restrictions imposed by the state, such as high rents and an expensive distribution system, as well as ongoing harassment in the form of "informative talks" and identity checks.

On September 1, 1996, Milo_evi c signed an agreement with the Kosovar Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova to reopen Albanian-language schools that had been closed in 1990; but, by the start of the 1997 school year, the agreement had not been implemented. Instead, students and teachers were still detained and, on occasion, beaten for trying to study or teach in their native language. In October, ethnic Albanian students held two peaceful demonstrations to demand the implementation of the education agreement. On October 1, the police forcibly dispersed the crowd in Prishtina and beat many of the demonstrators.

In neighboring Sandzak, with a large Muslim Slav population, there was similar discrimination, if not as intense as in Kosovo. The wave of state-sanctioned violence that swept through Sandzak during the war in Bosnia abated, but there was continued intimidation, harassment, and violence by the police in 1997.

On July 10, special police forces overtook the city hall in Sandzak's capital, Novi Pazar, and ousted the local Muslim-led government headed by Sulejman Ugljanin, on the charge that it was about to declare the autonomy of Sandzak. The local government was replaced with members of the ruling Socialist Party of Serbia and its coalition partner Yugoslav United Left (headed by Milo_evic's wife, Mira), and criminal proceedings were opened against Ugljanin for threatening the FRY's territorial integrity, a charge often used against leaders of the FRY's ethnic minorities.

Open violence and repression against minority groups (Hungarians, Croats and Roma) in the northern region of Vojvodina were not as pronounced as in other parts of the FRY. But the perception and reality of a system uniformly and consistently biased against minorities continued to encourage their emigration from the country. The large influx of refugees - ethnic Serbs from Bosnia, and Croatia-into Vojvodina, especially since 1995, continued to have a deleterious impact on the local minorities, with cases of coerced land swaps and state-sponsored seizures of homes.

In late June, the municipal assembly of Zemun (near Belgrade), headed by the ultranationalist leader of the Radical Party, Vojislav _e_elj, ordered the eviction from their homes of some ethnic Croat families who had lived in Zemun for up to three generations. The Belgrade District Court overturned the eviction order on July 10, but the police did not implement the order to evict the new tenants.

On October 19, a group of skinheads in Belgrade clubbed a thirteen-year-old Roma boy, Du_an Jovanovic, to death. Five suspects were arrested.

Domestic human rights organizations continued to criticize the government's inconsistent and discriminatory policy toward the estimated 600,000 refugees from the former Yugoslavia living in the FRY. The FRY's Law on Refugees, which does not comply with international standards, prohibited large numbers of refugees from obtaining refugee status, thereby limiting the amount of humanitarian aid they could receive and threatening them with possible repatriation. Some refugees were registered to vote in the September 1996 elections under conditions that strongly suggestedcoercion, intimidation, and fraud.

The Dayton Agreement, signed in 1995, obliged the Yugoslav government to cooperate with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), specifically by handing over persons indicted for war crimes. Despite this, a number of indicted individuals, such as Miroslav Radic and Slobodon Miljkovic, resided in the FRY in 1997. Veselin _ljivan anin, indicted for the murder of more than 200 hospital patients in the Croatian city of Vukovar in 1991, taught military tactics at the military academy in Belgrade. One of the most notorious indictees, Bosnian Serb Army Gen. Ratko Mladic , visited Belgrade in June for his son's wedding and was then seen vacationing on the coast of Montenegro. Although not yet indicted by the ICTY, the notorious war crimes suspect Zeljko "Arkan" Raznatovic maintained a public persona in Belgrade.

The Right to Monitor

Domestic human rights groups like the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia and the Humanitarian Law Center were regularly kept under police surveillance but were generally allowed to perform their duties in 1997. One incident involved the well-known human rights lawyer, Nikola Barovic, who was assaulted by the bodyguard of Radical Party leader Vojislav _e_elj after Barovic and _e_elj got into an argument during a televised interview. Human rights groups in minority-inhabited areas experienced more constant harassment. Activists for the Council for the Defense of Human Rights and Freedoms in Kosovo, for example, were often detained and, on occasion, beaten. International human rights groups, while also under state surveillance, were generally free to conduct their investigations without interference, although on one known occasion, an ethnic Albanian family was interrogated by the police after they talked to a foreign human rights monitor.

The Role of the

International Community

United Nations and Europe

Despite the plethora of violations in 1997, there was only one period of unambiguous condemnation and action by the international community against the government in the FRY. This occurred during the post-election demonstrations, albeit only after foreign governments realized that the demonstrations were gaining momentum and Milo_evi had resorted to threats of violent suppression and bans on the independent media. An OSCE delegation to Serbia, headed by Spain's former Prime Minister Filipe Gonzalez, confirmed that electoral fraud had occurred and presented recommendations to promote democracy and respect for human rights, known as the "Gonzalez report." European governments appropriately condemned the arrest of demonstrators, police violence, and restrictions on the independent media.

As soon as Milo_evic recognized the election results, however, European governments resumed welcoming him and the abusive Yugoslav government back into the international community. In April 1997, the E.U. granted the FRY preferential trade status, although, according to the agreement, the status will "be reviewed" if there is no progress in a number of human rights related areas, such as improvements in Serbia's media laws, reform of the judicial system, and improvements in Kosovo. An E.U. delegation visited the FRY in October to determine whether the status would be extended. The E.U. and the U.N. did, however, condemn the ongoing violations and persecution of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, especially the political trials in 1997 and the police violence against the peaceful student demonstrations in October.

An outer wall of sanctions remained in place throughout 1997, which kept the FRY out of international lending institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, but this was mostly due to the unilateral resolve of the United States.

United States

In contrast to Europe, the U.S. government took a more principled stand regarding human rights abuses in the FRY. Unlike most European countries, the U.S. did not reestablish full diplomatic relations and was the main force keeping the outer wall of sanctions in place. Top government officials, including the president and secretary of state, repeatedly stressed their disapproval of human rights violations in Kosovo, although making clear that there was no support for an independent Kosovar state. In Serbia proper, the U.S. government maintained good relations with the political opposition. When Radio B-92 was closed in December 1996, the U.S. government offered temporary use of the Voice of America frequency.

Relevant Human Rights Watch Reports:

Serbia and Montenegro-Discouraging Democracy: Elections & H.R., 09/97

Clouds of War: Chemical Weapons in the Former Yogoslavia, 3/97

Serbia and Montenegro- Persecution Persists: Human Rights Violations in Kosovo, 12/96

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