Human Rights Watch expressed sorrow at the assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic today. Djindjic was a leading force behind the progress Serbia has made in respect for human rights and the rule of law since the October 2000 fall of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, Human Rights Watch said.

Zoran Djindjic, age 50, was fatally shot twice in front of the main government building in central Belgrade mid-day Wednesday. Unconfirmed press reports indicated that the police arrested two suspects. Djindjic had been prime minister since January 2001, after a coalition of democratic parties won the December 2000 parliamentary elections in Serbia.

“Zoran Djindjic recognized that pursuing reform and respecting Serbia’s international obligations will pave the way to a prosperous future for the country, thoroughly integrated into Europe,” said Elizabeth Andersen, executive director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch. Djindjic is credited with the arrest and transfer or surrender of a number of indicted war criminals, including former President Slobodan Milosevic, to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).

While the identity and motives of Djindjic’s assassins are currently unknown, Human Rights Watch said that the perpetrators may be connected to those responsible for war crimes, political crimes, and other grave violations of human rights committed in the former Yugoslavia over the past decade. Despite some progress toward accountability at the ICTY and in Serbia’s own courts, many of those individuals remained at large and involved in organized crime after the change of government in late 2000. Human Rights Watch called on the government to step up its efforts to bring to justice the human rights violators from the Milosevic era.

“The rule of law will remain fragile in Serbia until the work Djindjic began is completed,” Andersen said.

Acting on a proposal from the government of Serbia, Acting Serbian President Natasa Micic declared a state of emergency Wednesday evening. The government’s proposal included a provision authorizing the army of the union of Serbia and Montenegro to assume responsibilities normally belonging to the Serbian police. Human Rights Watch urged the authorities in Belgrade to ensure that measures taken in response to the current crisis comport with their commitments under international human rights law. Measures to limit human rights protections may only be declared during a situation that threatens the life of the nation, and must be necessary, legitimate and limited to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.