(Prague/Washington -- March 26, 2004) An RFE/RL correspondent was convicted on March 16 of criminal libel for reporting on the alleged seizure of a building in the Serbian town of Sabac in 2000 by a Milosevic-era Serbian government minister. The correspondent, Hanibal Kovac, was sentenced to a suspended two-month jail term. If convicted on any charge during the next twelve months, Kovac will be sent to jail. Kovac still faces trial on five other criminal libel charges filed against him by the former minister, Cedomir Vasiljevic.
RFE/RL President Thomas A. Dine said that Kovac's conviction "comes at a time when the independent media in Serbia are reeling after the return to power of ultranationalists and Milosevic cronies. Kovac is being punished for being a professional journalist."
In his complaint, Vasiljevic, a businessman and senior official in the Serbian Radical Party that now dominates the Serbian parliament, claims that Kovac libeled him in broadcasting allegations concerning the building seizure. According to eyewitnesses, Vasiljevic and an armed guard allegedly broke into and seized the building, evicting the current occupants and beating several of them. Then-minister Vasiljevic later registered the building in his own name. Several of the women allegedly beaten during the building seizure tried to file suit against Vasiljevic, but the local court has refused to consider their complaint.
In late 2003, Kovac interviewed the women and filed a report for RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service, in which the women alleged that the court refused to consider their suit because Vasiljevic is a powerful figure in their town. In response to the report, Vasiljevic not only filed a criminal complaint against Kovac but, according to the correspondent, threatened to kill him.
The presiding judge during the trial was a known associate of Vasiljevic, Ivica Lazarevic, who was himself the subject of a Kovac report for RFE/RL on nepotism in the local judiciary in Sabac. During the trial, Judge Lazarevic did not allow Kovac's attorneys to call as defense witnesses any of the women Kovac interviewed for the report.
Kovac says that he has been subjected to threats of bodily harm from Vasiljevic and his associates since 1999, due to reports aired by RFE/RL about a number of alleged misdeeds. One of these reports, concerning the denial to Roma of access to a Vasiljevic-owned public swimming pool in Sabac, led to Serbia's first and only conviction to date on charges of discrimination against Roma. Kovac was severely beaten by Vasiljevic's bodyguards in June 2000 while swimming at the pool in question.