BELGRADE -- The death this week of a patient in a drug rehabilitation center connected to the Serbian Orthodox Church has sparked calls for greater scrutiny of such facilities, which have been operating with little or no government oversight.
Serbian Orthodox priest Father Branislav Peranovic was arraigned on August 8 in connection with the killing two days earlier of a man who was under treatment at Peranovic's church-connected rehabilitation center in eastern Serbia.
The case has caused an uproar because four years ago secretly recorded videos emerged from another drug rehab center, also run by Peranovic, purportedly showing the priest brutally beating one patient who was being held down by others.
Although Peranovic left that center in the wake of the scandal, in subsequent years he was promoted within the church hierarchy and was even allowed to open a new rehab center.
According to preliminary findings in the latest case, the patient, 39-year-old Neboijsa Zarubac, was killed by a blow to the head from a blunt object.
"[The victim] died in a nearby house that belongs to Branislav Peranovic," the chief judge in the case, Slobodan Velisavljevic, told reporters following Peranovic's arrest in the town of Sabac on August 7. "Currently there are grounds to suspect that Zarubac was undergoing corporal punishment and physical violence before his death and there is cause for an investigation."
Peranovic's house is located next to the church-run Sretenje drug-rehabilitation center that Peranovic runs and where Zarubac was being treated.
In court on August 8, Velisavljevic added that Zarubac had been struck "numerous times" by a wooden stick and hit repeatedly with fists until he passed out.
Peranovic initially refused to cooperate with the investigation, but in court he denied responsibility for Zarubac's death, saying he inflicted only "light bodily injuries" on him and was not present in the room during the last 10 minutes of Zarubac's life.
Peranovic faces from five to 15 years in prison if convicted in the case.
According to the Serbian daily "Press," most of the rehabilitation center's approximately 50 patients left the facility after hearing of Zarubac's death.
The church immediately suspended Peranovic's ecclesiastical standing and said an internal court would be convened to look into the matter.
Serbian Orthodox Bishop Irinej told RFE/RL's Balkan Service that the church is taking the matter very seriously.
"I think indirectly all of us in the church bear responsibility and I have to say that honestly because we haven't understood seriously enough what a disturbed man can do," he said.
The Serbian Orthodox Church runs an unknown number of drug-rehabilitation facilities across the country, but they come under almost no public scrutiny.
"First of all, it must be said that the Serbian Orthodox Church runs several 'rehab' centers for drug addiction, but this work is fully hidden from the Serbian public," said Zarko Korac, a member of parliament and a psychologist. "Drug abuse is a disease, and it must be treated in a professional way. The church has been fighting this disease, but in a way that has nothing to do with the Health Ministry, although only the ministry is authorized to issue permits and control the work of these centers."
The video that emerged in 2009
purportedly shows Peranovic personally beating a rehab patient, first with a shovel and then with his fists and knees until the patient collapses in a heap. At one point Peranovic even throws the patient violently against a wall, nearly causing a row of icons to fall off the wall of the 13th century Crna Reka Monastery where the rehab center was located.
'Sometimes Beatings Are Necessary'
Speaking to Serbia's B92 television in the wake of that scandal, Peranovic defended the "necessity" of corporal methods in treating drug addiction.
"I don't think beating is a good thing, just as I don't think amputation is a good thing," he said. "But sometimes it is necessary."
A criminal investigation into the 2009 incident has been ongoing for more than three years, but no charges have been filed and Peranovic was not censored by the church.
This has outraged many people.
"He's a modern priest -- he rides a Harley-Davidson, which, by the way, is a very expensive toy, but he is violent," said Korac. "And the thing that really sticks out is -- how can it be that, after the previous incident, after the recorded beating of inmates with shovels in Crna Reka, that he was not immediately defrocked and dealt with by a church court?"
RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson contributed to this report from Prague