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NEWS

Serbia’s foreign fighters: how different destinations mean a different application of the law

admin - July 10, 2018 - counter-terrorism

 

This post is part of the "Security and Human Rights" series, where we highlight violations of and threats to human rights and justice posed by counter-terrorism and anti-extremism measures.

The series is implemented by the civil society Working Group on Counter-Terrorism, Anti-Extremism and Human Rights, a part of the Civic Solidarity Platform (CSP), which brings together non-governmental organisations in Europe, Eurasia and the US. This post was shared with us by Izabela Kisic, Executive Director of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia.

 

In Serbia, the first ever criminal trial of so-called “foreign fighters” has exposed procedural shortcomings and the uneven use of counter-terrorism legislation.

In April 2018, in the case of Podbicanin et al., seven Serbian citizens accused of financing, recruiting, and public incitement to terrorist activities were convicted and sentenced to a total of 69 years in prison. Three of the seven were tried in absentia. The proceedings lasted for almost four years, with the trial having to be restarted several times due to changes in the council of judges. Three defendants were held in pre-trial detention for the duration of the case, as the presiding judge repeatedly rejected all motions for release by the defence lawyers.

The court has large discretion over whether to conduct trials in absentia, and has chosen to apply this discretion differently to equally serious crimes: in fact, the same court previously decided to postpone the trial of defendants involved in the 1995 Srebrenica genocide against Bosnian Muslims, because the accused failed to appear before the judge.

About one thousand citizens from Western Balkans countries have reportedly travelled to Iraq and Syria in connection with the Islamic State conflict, and the subsequent phenomenon of returning foreign fighters has pushed all Western Balkans countries to adopt legislation criminalising those who have left for foreign war zones.

Serbia has passed such legislation, but its implementation so far has been selective. For example, volunteer combatants heading to war zones in and around Ukraine to fight on the side of pro-Russian forces have been treated with much greater leniency than others. 

Among Western Balkans states, Serbia has the greatest number of volunteer combatants fighting in Ukraine on the pro-Russian side. However, the Serbian authorities and judiciary tend to view them as foreign mercenaries rather than terrorists, which leads to sentences that are much more lenient than those applying to combatants from regions controlled by the Islamic State.

In one well-known case, Ukraine volunteer fighter Radomir Pocuca left the country to join pro-Russian forces fighting in East Ukraine. Pocuca was never charged with terrorism-related offences but rather was prosecuted for participating in a conflict on the territory of another country. In July 2016, he was convicted before the same court that adjudicated the Podbicanin et al. case and was given a conditional one year sentence with a four year probation period- a far cry from the sentences that the Podbicanin defendants are facing.

It seems that social perceptions as well as religious and political affiliations are altering the way in which counter-terror legislation is being applied by the courts. The same crime, committed in different destinations, is resulting in wholly different applications of the law.

The trial of the 7 defendants in Podbicanin et al. continues now at the appellate court. The Serbian Helsinki Committee will closely monitor the final outcome of the proceedings and continue to alert to any discriminatory application of counter-terrorism legislation.

 


The Working Group on Counter-Terrorism, Anti-Extremism and Human Rights is jointly coordinated by Fair Trials and the Moscow-based SOVA Center for Information and Analysis. Other members of the Working Group include: Albanian Helsinki Committee, ARTICLE 19, DRA, Human Rights First, Netherlands Helsinki Committee, and Serbian Helsinki Committee.

If you are a journalist interested in this story, please telephone Fair Trials’ press department on +44 (0) 20 7822 2370 or +32 (0) 2 360 04 71.

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