WASHINGTON – Yugoslavia President Slobodan Milosevic continues his crackdown on the Serbian people while becoming an increasing threat to neighboring Montenegro, according to witnesses testifying before a Helsinki Commission hearing today. Witnesses testified of Milosevic’s repressive tactics just as news surfaced that a Serbian journalist was convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison for “espionage” after he wrote about Serbian atrocities in Kosovo.
“Slobodan Milosevic is an obstacle to the freedom and liberty so rightfully deserving of the Serbian people,” Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) said. “This man continues destroying the lives of innocent citizens and the United States should consider ways to end his reign of terror.”
“At the start of a new century, Milosevic continues to squelch the rights of the people of Serbia, and I would note that this includes but is not limited to Serbs,” said Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-CO). “As we approach the end of the year, the situation appears particularly perilous as Milosevic intensifies his crackdown at home and threatens to destabilize neighboring Montenegro.”
The Helsinki Commission hearing examined Milosevic’s recent efforts to perpetuate his power by forcing changes to the Yugoslav constitution and cracking down on opposition and independent forces in Serbia. The Milosevic regime is also threatening to usurp authority in Montenegro, with which Serbia comprises the Yugoslav Federation.
Human Rights Watch researcher Bogdan Ivanisevic testified that “human rights violations in Serbia have been on the rise since autumn 1998, when the threat of war with NATO hung over the country. The repression intensified during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, and has risen still after the war ended.” Ivanisevic cited two reasons for the escalation. Milosevic has responded to a “decisive decline in public support” by stepping up harassment of his critics, Ivanisevic said. “Second, since relations between the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and Western countries have deteriorated in the wake of the NATO war, Yugoslav authorities are now indifferent to Western criticism, including criticism for human rights abuses.”
Stojan Cerovic, a journalist with the Serbian weekly Vreme (Time) currently at the U.S. Institute of Peace, focused more specifically on the plight of the media, noting that the authorities seek to limit the media by cutting off supplies, including newsprint, making it difficult to publish. He predicted that as elections, just announced for September 24, approach, more violence, more pressure and more bans on independent activity can be expected. Cerovic eluded to the likelihood that Milosevic may feel the need to retain his personal power or otherwise stand trial on charges war crimes and crimes against humanity in the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in the Hague.
Branislav Canak, president of the independent trade union Nezavisnost (Independence), documented the violation of one human right after another — from freedom of speech and travel to the right to work and live in peace. He noted that civic initiatives at the local level have failed because Milosevic’s regime and its supporters threaten to close down restaurants or other public facilities where such initiatives are scheduled to take place.
David Dasic, head of the Washington-based Montenegrin Trade Mission to the United States, acknowledged that the rift between Montenegro and Belgrade was real but that Montenegrin authorities want a democratic and prosperous Yugoslavia. As a result, a favorable but delicate balance is being pursued, but Belgrade has passed constitutional amendments detrimental to the federation rather than respond to Montenegrin proposals made one year ago. The witnesses reported that the opposition could win elections if they are truly united, but the inability to have any control over the election process encourages them to boycott. If they do boycott, however, they will lose control of the many city governments in which they achieved majorities in 1996.
Given the current situation, Montenegro sees no way it can participate in federal elections. Just as witnesses were testifying before the Helsinki Commission, reports were surfacing of two developments in Yugoslavia which could deeply impact human rights in the region – the conviction of a journalist and Milosevic’s announcement of Yugoslavia’s September 24 elections. Serbian journalist Miroslav Filipovic was sentenced by a Yugoslav military court to seven years in prison for “espionage” and “spreading false information,” according to one report. Filipovic was charged after reporting news about Serbian atrocities in Kosovo.
“Filipovic faces years of prison for exercising his right to freedom of expression,” Chairman Smith said. “The truth about what has happened in and to Serbia in the last 12 years is Milosevic’s worst enemy, and telling the truth has become very dangerous in Serbia as a result. This is a sad reality which Filipovic and the people of Serbia do not deserve.”
“I call for Miroslav Filipovic’s immediate and unconditional release, with all charges dropped, and for those in power in Belgrade to allow Serbia’s tradition of intellectual dialogue and debate to be restored, in the schools and at the universities, in the press and on the air,” Chairman Smith added.