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Deserters and draft evaders in Yugoslavia are still waiting for an amnesty to come

By Andreas Speck

Since June the war that was not called a war is officially over. After 79 days of bombing Yugoslavia agreed to withdraw its forces from Kosov@ and to accept NATO to lead KFOR within Kosov@.

Although this war was not called a war by the Serbian regime, even before the bombing began the regime introduced new regulations for „criminal acts against the armed forces" on 18. March, increasing the punishment for draft evasion and desertion to up to 20 years imprisonment and declared a „state of war" within Serbia. Mobilisation war especially strong in the Southern parts of Serbia close to Kosov@. In the cities of Leskovac, Kraljevo, Niš and others almost every young man was mobilised, and many went to Kosov@. How many Serbian soldiers died during the war still remains a secret, but estimates are about 2,000 soldiers who have been killed by NATO and the KLA.

But although mobilication was sharp, not everybody went. Maybe some more even would have gone, but the draft call never reached them - either because they moved and the military didn't know their current address, or because of uneffectivity of the postal service. However, most of those are now seen as draft evaders.

Estimates of numbers of deserters and draft evaders vary wideley. The retired Yugoslav officer and formerly head of the Legal Department of Supreme Command, Tihomir Stojanovic, estimates that there are 23,000 charges in front of the military courts for offences committed during the NATO intervention and the war in Kosov@. The most often charge is „not responding to call-up and avoiding military service". The Serbian Helsinki Committee estimates that there are 14,000 people who have been accused. Other estimates go up to 35,000 charges against deserters and draft evaders. The »Safe House Project«, a project set up by Serbian war resisters in Budapest in Hungary, reported in July that a few hundred objectors, draft evaders and deserters are in military prison in Serbia, most of them in prisons in Zabela-Pozarevac, Sremska Mitrovica and Niš. The most common sentence is five years of imprisonment.

There is the case of an art student, who wants to remain anonymus. He never received his call-up, but nevertheless was sentenced in absence to 7 years of imprisonment. He now is into hiding, unable to finish his studies or to do anything in public - neither going to bars, nor to participate in any political activity. Like him, many deserters and draft evaders are hiding within Serbia for fear of being arrested by the police and sent to military prison. Although usually sentences are reduced in a second trial after being arrested, there still is a lot of uncertainty what can be expected. And although the „state of war" was put out of force end of June, still trials against draft evaders use the regulations which have been into force during the state of war.

The situation is a bit better in Montenegro, where the Montenegrin government refused to put into effect the state of war and where the police is not cooperating with the military. But nevertheless, there is no way to travel to Serbia without risking of being arrested.

The situation of the about 1,000 Yugoslav draft evaders who fled to Hungary is even worse. After the war officially is over now, they are not granted refugee status, and therefore always have to fear deportation. Without any safe legal status, they are not allowed to work in Hungary, nor are they allowed to travel to other safe countries. NATO states, who called on Serbian soldiers to desert from the army during the war - NATO even threw brochures with this call from planes over Kosov@ - are now refusing them visa and asylum, leaving them in an unsecure status in Hungary. For all of them, the war is not over until an amnesty is introduced.

When the war in Bosnia was ended with the Dayton agreement, part of the agreement was an amnesty for draft evaders and deserters, that had to be introduced in all three participating states - in Yugoslavia, Bosnia and Croatia. However, although this amnesty might have been not as good as it could have been, it allowed draft evaders and deserters to return to Yugoslavia - and at the same time it allowed the NATO states to deport draft evaders and deserters who have fled and asked for asylum in NATO countries to deport them back to Serbia. Many of those now have immediately being drafted with the start of NATOs attacks and thus became „legitimate military targets", rewarding their lengthy refusal to participate in the former wars by reducing them to the status of cannon fodder, as Biljana Kovacevic-Vuco, president of the Yugoslav Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, puts it.

However, this time there even is no regulation for an amnesty. Neither the agreement between NATO and Yugoslavia, nor UN Security Council Resolution 1244 call for an amnesty of deserters and draft evaders. The lack of an amnesty leaves a lot of room for political maneuvring for the Serbian authorities. Because the number of charges against draft evaders and deserters more than doubles the available places in prison in Serbia, trials will be done selectivly, especially against those who spoke out against the regime. Even most of the opposition parties don't talk about amnesty, for fear of being accused for lack of patriotism.

Yugoslav human rights and anti-war groups are planning an amnesty campaign within Serbia. It is important that this campaign receives outside support by NGOs and war resisters. The war is not over yet.
Yugoslav Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, Admirala Geprata 8/III, 11000 Belgrade, Yugoslavia, tel./fax: +381-11-3617144, email yulaw@EUnet.yu
Women in Black, Jug Bogdanova 18/5, 11000 Belgrade, Yugoslavia, tel./fax: +381-11-623225, email stasazen@eunet.yu
Safe House Project, http://extra.hu/prigovor