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Serbia & Montenegro: Amnesty International Alleges Serbian Torture Of Djindjic Suspects

Amnesty International is asking for an investigation into allegations that prison authorities tortured suspects arrested in connection with the assassination of Serbia's prime minister in March. In a report released today, the international human rights watchdog says accounts by victims and their lawyers suggest a pattern of widespread torture of detainees rounded up after Zoran Djindjic was shot dead in Belgrade. Serbia denies the charges.

Prague, 4 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- In a report released today, Amnesty International details what it believes is a pattern of widespread torture of detainees rounded up after Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic was assassinated in Belgrade on 12 March.

Allegations of torture include asphyxiation by taping bags over the head, beatings, electric shocks, and mock executions. Testimonies also concern nonphysical violence, such as sleep deprivation. The report is based on interviews with victims and their lawyers.

Hugh Poulton is a researcher on the Balkans for Amnesty International in London. He visited Serbia in July and met with lawyers and relatives of those detained in connection with the Djindjic assassination.

"We came across about 15 to 20 serious cases [of abuse and torture]. We believe this could possibly just be scratching the surface. It seems to be particularly on what were perceived as low-level criminals or 'small fish,' who were unlikely to get anybody's interest or much public sympathy," Poulton says.

Poulton says most of the reports of torture and ill treatment occurred during Operation Saber, launched by the Serbian authorities after a state of emergency was declared following the assassination. At the end of April, the Ministry of Internal Affairs announced that more than 10,000 people had been detained, of whom some 4,500 remained in custody.

Charges have since been filed against 44 suspects. Trials are expected to start in October.

The Amnesty report follows a similar investigation by the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR). The IWPR report -- released in June -- also gathered testimony that pointed to the mistreatment and torture of suspects by Serbian authorities.

Daniel Sunter is IWPR's project manager in Serbia: "Our team of reporters managed to find people who claimed they had suffered torture during Operation Saber. It was the case, for instance, of Milan Vukovic, who was arrested in Belgrade on 13 March. He was detained for one month and released after that without any kind of charge."

Vukovic, a Belgrade restaurant owner, was accused of belonging to a group believed to have been involved in Djindjic's assassination. He told IWPR that his hands were tied behind his back and that a plastic bag was placed over his head during an interrogation.

Serbian authorities have repeatedly maintained there have been no significant breaches of human rights in connection with the Djindjic case.

Rasim Ljajic, minister for human and minority rights in Serbia and Montenegro, tells RFE/RL that international organizations were given the possibility of visiting prisoners in the country's jails and discussing their treatment.

"I cannot rule out the possibility that during the [Djindjic] arrests, there was [use of force]. But in jails, [I can say that] there has not been any use of force by guards. To the contrary, reports from the international organizations noted that prisoners had told them that prison guards were behaving correctly," Ljajic says.

In April, due to increasing external pressures, Serbian authorities allowed representatives of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to visit Serbia's central prison and the main police station in Belgrade.

In a joint report, the two groups documented two cases of possible torture.

Amnesty's Poulton says accusations of torture and ill treatment by security forces have long been issues in Serbia and have again been highlighted by Operation Saber.

"There have been repeated cases of ill treatment and torture over the recent past and before that. They were very rarely seriously investigated. We notice, for example, that the recommendation, which is many years old now, from the United Nations' Committee Against Torture to have torture as a crime in the criminal code is still yet to be done. Penal punishments for police officers who use force against detainees are very low. Very few are prosecuted, [and] when they are, they're quite often given suspended sentences and remain in the police force," Poulton says.

IWPR's Sunter agrees: "Unfortunately, we have to say that still we can see traces from [former President Slobodan] Milosevic's time. Simply, police are overreacting. [They are] using physical force and using some torture mechanisms, which are not acceptable in accordance with European standards."

Amnesty International is asking for an investigation into the torture reports. The organization says human rights groups should be given access to interview detainees privately about the allegations.

(RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service contributed to this report.)