News 29 Oct 13

Belgrade Mourns Human Rights Lawyer Srdja Popovic

Serbian lawyer, human rights activist and anti-war campaigner Srdja Popovic, known for defending Communist-era dissidents and for opposing Slobodan Milosevic, has died.

Marija Ristic
Srdja Popovic, lawyer and human rights activist

Popovic, who died in Belgrade on Tuesday at the age of 76, spent much of his career seeking justice for political activists and academics who were prosecuted for struggling against communist rule in the former Yugoslavia.

In 1976, London newspaper The Times wrote that he was “stigmatised in Yugoslavia, being one of the bravest men who defended those who were prosecuted for their beliefs”.

During his career, he defended the late Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djinjdic, Serbian writer and former president of Yugoslavia Dobrica Cosic, Serbian Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj, the late Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, Croatian politician Vladimir Seks, Serbian film director Dusan Makavejev and many others.

He stressed that even those with unacceptable opinions had the right to a defence.

“I would even defend [WWII Chetnik leader] Draza Mihajlovic and [Communist state security official] Aleksandar Rankovic... I defend those people and their right to say things that I may not even agree with,” Popovic once said.

During the early 1990s, he was among the first who openly disagreed with the regime of Slobodan Milosevic.

“I was hoping that he would be defeated within his own party, but he was not… War began deliberately, engineered by a small number of people,” Popovic said.

Popovic founded one of the first opposition weekly news magazines, Vreme, in 1990, together with journalists and other prominent anti-Milosevic intellectuals.

A year later, he became the president of European Movement in Serbia, although he then moved to the United States, and returned to Serbia only after the democratic changes that saw Milosevic ousted in 2000.

Popovic was strongly critical of successive governments’ failure to take responsibility for Belgrade’s involvement in the 1990s wars.

“The stance of Milosevic and his government towards war crimes was understandable and clear. They denied the crimes because they were responsible for them. The public and citizens of Serbia just followed them,” he said.

“What is not understandable is that this situation didn’t change even after 2002, when the ‘new democratic government’ arrived, despite the fact that this government extradited dozens of indictees [to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, ICTY],” he added.

Speaking about the ICTY in an interview for BIRN earlier this year, Popovic said that the court’s critics should take into account that ex-Yugoslav countries had not shown the will to prosecute some of the worst war crimes suspects.

“The ICTY prosecuted those who it saw would not be prosecuted in their own countries,” said Popovic.

“There are still many perpetrators left unprosecuted… We elected Milosevic four times and in the last elections he had two million votes. Those are two million people who supported war crimes,” he added.

During the last decade of his life, Popovic worked for the family of the assassinated Prime Minister Zoran Djinjdic.

He once explained why he decided on a career defending political prisoners – a choice, he said, that was influenced by his father.

“My father had an idealistic understanding that lawyer is most needed for those who have many enemies, and those are political prisoners. Against them are the media, the state, the court, the prosecution, and sometimes even their family,” he said.

He wrote five books: Kosovski čvor – drešiti ili seći (The Kosovo Knot – To Unravel or Not), Put u varvarstvo (Road to Barbarism), Poslednja instanca I, II, III (Last Instance I, II, III), Nezavrseni proces (Unfinished Process) and One gorke suze posle (These Bitter Tears After).

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