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Dobrosav Nesic and the Council for Human Rights in Leskovac

From May 13 to June 12, Dobrosav Nesic, fifty, head of the Council for Human Rights in Leskovac, served a jail sentence for violating Serbia's Law on Public Information. It is the first and only time the law, adopted in October 1998 and criticized domestically and abroad for its restrictions on the free press, has been used against an NGO. The charge was based on an article published in the December 1998 edition of the council's magazine Prava coveka (Rights of Man), edited by Nesic. The article accused Radio Leskovac- a public radio station controlled by the local branch of Serbia's ruling SPS-of "primitivism" and of not reporting the misdeeds of the local SPS politicians. The most powerful of them, Zivojin Stefanovic, head of the Jablanicki district to which Leskovac belongs, attacked the magazine on January 11 as an "extended arm" of Serbia's "foreign enemies." On January 14, SPS-dominated Radio Leskovac filed charges against the magazine and its editor.

In a January 21 decision, the municipal magistrate found that the sentence under contention in the article was untrue and that the article's publication constituted a "misuse of the freedom of public information," as set forth in the Law on Public Information.111 As the editor-in-chief of the magazine, Nesic was fined 70,000 dinars (U.S. $3.500 at the time of the ruling).112 Since he was unable to pay the fine, he spent thirty days in jail, as allowed by law.113 The January 21 ruling also included a 100,000 dinars (U.S. $5,000) fine on the Council for Human Rights, as the publisher of the magazine. In Serbia, these are extremely high fines that very few persons or organizations are able to pay. Nesic and the magazine thus risk the impounding of their properties, as prescribed by the Law on Public Information.

For years Nesic and the Leskovac Council were the most active human rights defenders in the southern part of Serbia, the traditional stronghold of Milosevic's SPS party. In July and September 1998, for example, the council organized two round-tables of Serbian and Kosovo Albanian intellectuals,114 which, in the context of the armed conflict in Kosovo at the time, particularly irritated the nationalist parties in power in Serbia. After serving his sentence in May and June 1999, Nesic received anonymous threats over the telephone that he would "lose his head unless he shortens his tongue."115 On January 17, 2000, Nesic stated that the State Security Service requested for the third time that he submit information on the funding of the Prava coveka magazine. Nesic also said that he had presented all the information about the newspaper when it was registered, so therefore the repeated attention by State Security was only aimed at intimidating him.116

Charges of Espionage against Intellectuals and NGO Activists

During the NATO intervention, Yugoslav authorities arrested five intellectuals and NGO workers-foreigners and Yugoslav nationals-on suspicion of espionage for NATO countries. Three were convicted and eventually pardoned, and two were not tried. A clear threat of similar legal action hangs over the many Yugoslav intellectuals and NGO activists who are, by the nature of their work, in frequent contacts with foreigners.

Branko Jelen, Peter Wallace, and Steve Pratt

On May 29, 1999, a military court in Belgrade convicted three workers of the Australian branch of Care International on charges of espionage. The court sentenced Steve Pratt, fifty, to twelve years in prison, Peter Wallace, thirty, to four years, and Branko Jelen, thirty-three and of Yugoslav nationality, to six years.117 On July 13, the Supreme Military Court reduced the sentences to eight, one, and three years respectively.118 On September 1, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic pardoned Pratt and Wallace,119 after months-long initiatives by the Australian authorities and telephone requests by prominent foreign politicians and public figures. On December 31, the government also freed Branko Jelen. Malcolm Fraser, Care's chairman in Australia and a former prime minister, attributed the release of Jelen to international pressure from figures like U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, as well as the Australian and Greek foreign ministers.120 Fraser himself had met with Slobodan Milosevic in late November in Belgrade,121 and on December 22 -ten days before Jelen's release-he published an editorial in the International Herald Tribune criticizing the NATO intervention and the overall Western policy toward Serbia.122

Pratt and Wallace were arrested on March 31 at the Yugoslavia-Croatia border, as they were leaving the country, and Jelen was arrested on April 8 in Nis, his hometown. The grounds for their conviction was found mostly in their activities in Kosovo in 1998 and 1999 prior to the war between NATO and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia which began on March 24, 1999. Jelen and Wallace were found guilty of delivering reports to Pratt on developments in the areas where the Yugoslav Army (VJ) and Serbian police (MUP) were fighting or preparing offensives against the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). According to the verdict, Pratt was compiling reports and sending them to the Australian section of Care International, as well as to the Care sections in some NATO countries, such as Great Britain, the United States, and Germany.123 The accused claimed that the information they collected was used exclusively for the humanitarian organization's purposes. The safety situation, they said, was crucial to the organization's planning.124 In their appeals, they also claimed that most of the information found to constitute "military secrets" by the trial court had been published in the Yugoslav media125 or openly used by the UNHCR and OSCE in Kosovo.126

The military trial court, however, found that the information "undoubtedly [represented] confidential military data,"127 and that delivering such data to a foreign organization constituted espionage under the terms of article 128(1) of the FRY Penal Code.128 The court refrained from declaring Care International an espionage organization,129 but found that handing over information of the kind to any foreign organization amounts to espionage. The Supreme Military Court concluded that information does not lose its confidential character even if it has already been "leaked" and published in newspapers.130 This court also stopped short of branding Care International an espionage organization, and even acknowledged that it is impossible to establish how NATO used the information delivered by Pratt to Care sections in some NATO countries. But the court's decision hints that Care International, being a humanitarian organization, was considered likely to be involved in spying activities:

It is well-known that the [NATO member] states have systematically collected [confidential] information not only through specialized intelligence agencies, but also through nongovernmental international organizations, including humanitarian ones. ... It is not a coincidence that governments of NATO countries subsidize [national branches of Care International].131

After their release, Pratt and Wallace returned to Australia, where Pratt stated that his public confession of guilt, recorded and broadcasted on Serbian Television during the NATO intervention, was fabricated. Pratt explained that the statement was dictated to him sentence by sentence.132 One of the defense attorneys in the case, Ivan Jankovic, told Human Rights Watch that Pratt was threatened with execution during the investigation; his televised confession, however, was not used in the proceedings.133

Miroslav Hadzic and Bodo Weber

Another foreigner arrested during the NATO intervention on suspicion of espionage, Bodo Weber from Germany, was released before any trial began, but was subjected to physical and psychological torture in detention. His Yugoslav colleague remained in jail for almost two months because of their contacts.

Weber is a post-graduate student of political science and East European history at the University of Frankfurt on Main. Fluent in Serbo-Croatian, he traveled frequently to the former Yugoslavia and had established contacts with Yugoslav NGO activists. In the week preceding the NATO air-campaign against Yugoslavia, he was in Belgrade conducting research for his masters' thesis on the political system in Republika Srpska (BH) 1990-1995. On April 4, the day his visa was due to expire, he was arrested at the border between Yugoslavia and Croatia. The police took him to the nearby town of Sremska Mitrovica, where he was held until April 12. As Weber explained to Human Rights Watch, his interrogators used force to extract a confession that he was spying for the German intelligence agency Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND):

The first time they beat me was at the border post, during the interrogation following my arrest, when they made me translate parts of my diary and I tried to "soften" some phrases in the translation. On the same day they took me to Sremska Mitrovica, where I stayed until April 12. During the night I was handcuffed and tied to a sofa or a radiator. I was first interrogated there by two men who said they were from the VJ intelligence service, but I saw the Ministry of Interior designation on the documents they had. They beat me and forced me to "admit" I was a BND spy. Eventually, three more interrogating teams spoke with me, and they said they did not believe in the spying story, so they wanted the "real truth" from me. They were particularly interested in my contacts with Miroslav Hadzic, a Belgrade military analyst with whom I had met. During the six days in Sremska Mitrovica, they were constantly threatening me with death, and in the last couple of days they announced three times that on the following day I would be executed.

On April 12, three persons in civilian clothes drove me to Belgrade. In a military jail, while I was filling in some form, an officer asked me about my health, and I said I didn't hear very well because of the beating in Mitrovica. When I said this, two soldiers started beating me, and asked: "Can you hear better now?" Then I was taken to a cell where I stayed for another month. The treatment by the interrogators-from military intelligence, as they introduced themselves-was mostly correct, but once they threatened they would take me to a bridge "to be attacked by NATO" and leave me there. The guards in the prison severely beat me four times, during the night, when their superiors were absent. On May 9, a guard put a gun to my head and pulled the trigger. The gun turned out to be empty.134

The authorities opened a formal investigation against Weber on charges of espionage on May 7. He was accused of having collected information for the German organization Ohne Rüstung Leben (Living Without Weapons), which, in the opinion of the investigating judge, was an espionage organization. The information related to the activities of the Yugoslav Army (VJ) and the Serbian police (MUP), activities of the KLA, the attitude of Serbian intellectuals towards the authorities, the status of nongovernmental organizations in Yugoslavia, the political situation in Vojvodina, Kosovo, Sandzak, and the cities of Nis and Kragujevac, and relations between Serbia and Montenegro. After the war with NATO began, he was alleged to have collected information for another "espionage" organization-the magazine Perspektiven (Perspectives) from Frankfurt-about the effects of NATO's raids on Yugoslav air-defense systems, barracks, and factories, and on the reactions of the Serbian people. Finally, he was accused of obtaining from Miroslav Hadzic, a former VJ officer who is now an independent analyst in Belgrade, written materials from the 1980s and early 1990s prepared for the former Yugoslav People's Army.135

On May 11, however, the Supreme Military Prosecutor suspended further prosecution. Weber was released on the same day, and on May 13 he left Yugoslavia. Miroslav Hadzic-who was arrested in connection with the same charges-was released two weeks later. On June 3, the 1st Army Military Court declined to uphold the indictment against him. In the opinion of the court, the brochures he lent to Weber did not contain military data that in 1999 would amount to military secrets.136

111 Decision of the Municipal Magistrate in Leskovac, No. 1246/99-5 and 1281/99-5, January 21, 1999 (on file with Human Rights Watch). The decision was based on article 69 of the Law on Public Information, which provides: "The following persons shall be punished for misuse of the freedom of public information though publication of untruths which hurt rights of a person: 1) founder and publisher...; 2) responsible editor and responsible representative of the founder and the publisher...." Law on Public Information, Sluzbeni glasnik Republike Srbije (Official Gazette of the Republic of Serbia), No. 36/98, October 20, 1998, article 69.

112 Each day in jail is considered equivalent to sixty dinars of the fine. After his release Nesic still owed 68,200 dinars, which the authorities were still trying to collect as of mid-November.

113 Human Rights Watch interview with Dobrosav Nesic, Belgrade, September 5, 1999.

114 Bojan Toncic, "Ratni obracun vlasti na jugu Srbije" (War Countdown By the Authorities At the South Of Serbia), Republika (Belgrade), no. 213-215, June 1-31, 1999, p. 11-12.

115 Human Rights Watch interview with Dobrosav Nesic, Belgrade, September 5, 1999.

116 Dispatch by BETA news agency, January 17, 2000.

117 Judgment of the Military Court at the 1st Army Command, IK No. 14/99, May 29, 1999 (on file with Human Rights Watch), p. 4-5.

118 Judgment of the Supreme Military Court, IIK No. 472/99, July 13, 1999 (on file with Human Rights Watch), p. 2.

119 "I Jelena na slobodu" (To Release Jelen Too), Glas Javnosti, September 3, 1999, p. 9.

120 "Aid Worker, Jailed as Spy, Is Released in Yugoslavia," AFP, January 2, 2000.

121 "Milosevic Met Former Australian Premier, Head of CARE," AFP, November 24, 1999.

122 Malcolm Fraser, "Western Policy Toward Serbia Has Been Biased," International Herald Tribune, December 22, 1999.

123 Judgment of the Military Court at the 1st Army Command, p. 6-7.

124 Ibid., p. 7-9; see also Judgment of the Supreme Military Court, p. 11 (complaint by Pratt).

125 Judgment of the Supreme Military Court, p. 14, 15, and 17 (complaint by Jelen).

126 Ibid., p. 10 (complaint by Pratt), 14 (Jelen), and 20 (Wallace).

127 The following is the information mentioned in the verdict as representing secret military data provided for Pratt by Jelen and Wallace: a) information provided by Jelen: KLA surrounded 20 policemen and 200 Serbian civilians in the village of Kijevo; police forces concentrated on the road Pristina-Pec and are waiting for "a green light" from the Government to act (July 1, 1998); Arkan's "Tigers" [Serbian paramilitary formation led by Zeljko Raznatovic Arkan, indictee before the ICTY because of the crimes he had purportedly committed in the wars in the territory of the former Yugoslavia] are trying to recruit Serbian refugees from Croatia residing in Kosovo, but these oppose it (July 6, 1998); one refugee and four other persons died in the NATO bombing of the Pristina airport (March 28, 1999); and, an Army depot near Nis was hit, as well as two refugee camps in the town of Kursumlija, with eight refugees killed; eight or nine military barracks were hit too (March 29, 1999; the Supreme Military Court found that the Military Court in Belgrade erred in this point, since the information provided by Jelen mentioned ordinary barracks (huts), and not military ones. Judgment of the Supreme Military Court, p. 42); b) information provided by Wallace: security situation in Kosovo, including a March 18, 1999, report on the regroupment of the Yugoslav army and police forces around the village of Srbica. Judgment of the Military Court in Belgrade, p. 2-3.

128 Ibid., p. 14-15; the pertinent provision in the Penal Code is worded as follows: "Whoever communicates, delivers, or makes accessible to a foreign state, foreign organization, or a person working for them, secret military, economic, or official data or documents, will be punished by imprisonment for a minimum of three years." Krivicni zakon Savezne Republike Jugoslavije, sa objasnjenjima i uputstvima (Penal Code of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, with Explanations and Instructions), 2nd amended edition (Mitar Kokolj ed., Belgrade 1995), article 128 (1). The law defines as "secret" not only "the military, economic, or official data and documents declared as such by a law, other regulation or decision of a competent organ," but also "those data and documents which are accessible to a limited circle of people, and which are to be held secret, as their disclosure would have particularly grave consequences for the security and defense of the country or for its economic interests." Ibid., article 128 (6).

129 A week after the release of Pratt and Wallace, Care's program director Malcolm Fraser met with Bratislava Morina, Yugoslav minister for refugees, IDPs, and humanitarian aid, and discussed re-launching Care's activities in FRY. See "Za sto brzu humanitarnu pomoc Jugoslaviji" (As Urgent Humanitarian Assistance To Yugoslavia As Possible), Politika, September 8, 1999, p. 2. On November 23, Fraser and Morina signed a memorandum on Care's future activities in FRY. Sanja Cosic, "Malkolm Frejzer najavio dvostruko vecu pomoc" (Malcolm Fraser Announced a Doubling of the Aid), Danas, November 24, 1999, p. 5.

130 Judgment of the Supreme Military Court, p. 36-37.

131 Judgment of the Supreme Military Court, p. 45-46.

132 "`Moje priznanje je fabrikovano'" (`My Confession Was Fabricated'), Blic, September 14, p. 8.

133 Human Rights Watch interview with Ivan Jankovic, attorney, Belgrade, November 17, 1999.

134 Human Rights Watch e-mail communication with Bodo Weber, September 15, 1999.

135 Decision on the investigation of Bodo Weber, Military Court at the 1st Army Command, KI No. 11/99, May 7, 1999 (on file with Human Rights Watch). The basis for the charge against Weber was article 128 (3) of the Yugoslav penal code: "Whoever joins a foreign intelligence service, collects information, or contributes in any other way to its work, shall be punished by imprisonment ranging from one to ten years." If committed during a state of war, the offense is punishable with a minimum ten-year imprisonment.

136 Decision of the Military Court at the 1st Army Command, No. 26/99, June 3, 1999 (on file with Human Rights Watch).

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